This Kentucky Derby list will set aside the discussion of qualifying points and prep races to give you my 10 favorite winners of the Run for the Roses. Please note that they are listed in chronological order.
I encourage you to share your favorite Kentucky Derby winners in the comment section below the article.
1972 – Riva Ridge [First Landing – Meadow Stable – Lucien Laurin/Ron Turcotte] The floppy-eared colt brought the Meadow Stable of Penny Chenery into the spotlight when he won seven of nine starts as a 2-year-old and was named the Champion Juvenile of 1971. Riva was the early favorite to win the Derby in 1972, which also happened to be my senior year in high school. I had become a big fan of Meadow Stable and was among the many supporters of Riva Ridge that made him the favorite on May 6. He took the Roses with a gate to wire victory at odds of 1.50-1. Of course, by then there was talk that Meadow Stable had another good horse in the barn.
1973 – Secretariat [Bold Ruler – Meadow Stable – Lucien Laurin/Ron Turcotte] Just like Riva Ridge, Secretariat dominated the juvenile ranks and was not only the division champion, but also Horse of the Year. Penny Chenery had captured the fancy of not only racing fans but also the American public and I was all-in on Big Red. When he lost the Wood Memorial two weeks before the Derby, the nay-sayers emerged in force saying the son of Bold Ruler could not get the 10-furlong distance. Personally, I was incredulous, I took what the doubters were saying personally. It was vindication when Secretariat drew off to win the Derby in track record time.
1977 – Seattle Slew [Bold Reasoning – Tayhill Stable – Billy Turner/Jean Cruget] At this point, the 1970’s was on its way to becoming what many believe was the greatest decade in racing history. Secretariat ended the drought between Triple Crown winners and Seattle Slew would pick up where Big Red left off. The $17,500 bargain purchase won the 2-year-old championship and would go on to victory in the Derby. Slew was speedy and brilliant as he crushed his competition to win the Derby with an unbeaten record.
1978 – Affirmed [Exclusive Native – Harbor View Farm – Laz Barrera/Steve Cauthen] I was a very big fan of Affirmed and a big part of the reason was that “The Kid” Steve Cauthen was his jockey. Also, he had run all but one of his 2-year-old races at Belmont Park and Saratoga, close to my New Jersey home. I was firmly on the side of the Harbor View runner as the Affirmed vs. Alydar rivalry grew. Trainer Laz Barrera opted to start his 3-year-old season in California, which was a bit of a disappointment, but I was quite pleased when Cauthen urged the determined chestnut to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle.
1980 – Genuine Risk [Exclusive Native – Diana Firestone – LeRoy Jolley/Jacinto Vasquez] There had only been one filly to win the Kentucky Derby prior to 1980, and that was the New Jersey-bred Regret in 1915. Genuine Risk took on the boys in the Wood Memorial and after a third place finish they decided to take more try on the First Saturday in May. Sent off at 13-1, she rallied from seventh place in a field of 13 to win one for the fillies.
1999 – Charismatic [Summer Squall – Robert and Beverly Lewis – D. Wayne Lukas/Chris Antley] Charismatic was a well-bred horse who had trouble putting the pieces together. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas had to put him into a $62,500 maiden claimer to get his first victory. From there his performance did not improve much. As a 3-year-old Lukas again dropped him for a tag and there were again no takers and this time he got a win by disqualification. He was winless until two weeks before the Derby when he won the Lexington. The brilliant and troubled jockey Chris Antley was making a comeback when he rode Charismatic to victory in the Derby at 31-1.
2003 – Funny Cide [Distorted Humor – Sackatoga Stable – Barclay Tagg/Jose Santos] The story of Funny Cide captivated racing fans. He was owned by a partnership of ten friends from Sacket’s Harbor, NY, who rode to his races in a yellow school bus. His victory in the Derby was the first for a New York-bred and the first for a gelding since 1929. Funny Cide is retired at the Kentucky Horse Farm where he is still very popular.
2006 – Barbaro [Dynaformer – Lael Stables – Michael Matz/Edgar Prado] Barbaro headed to the Derby unbeaten in five career starts and nobody loves undefeated horses more than I do. Trainer Michael Matz was a hero of the Iowa corn field airplane crash landing when he saved four children from the wreckage. Veteran jockey Edgar Prado, who had won more than 5,000 races, was his regular rider. Barbaro was the 6.10-1 second choice in the Derby field where the favorite was 5.50-1. He ran like he was odds-on when he took control of the race at the mile pole and drew off to win by 6 ½ lengths, the largest margin in 60 years.
2009 – Mine That Bird [Birdstone – Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerte Equine – Chip Wooley/Calvin Borel] The result of the 2009 Derby was so outrageous and unexpected that Tom Durkin, the greatest race caller of all time, did not see the 51-1 winner coming up the rail on the sloppy Churchill Downs track. Jockey Calvin Borel won the Run for the Roses just two years before on Street Sense. Borel had begun what would be a great year when Rachel Alexandra took the Kentucky Oaks the day before by more than 20 lengths.
2015 – American Pharoah [Pioneerof the Nile – Zayat Stables – Bob Baffert/Victor Espinoza] In my years as a racing fan I had seen Secretariat end the long wait for a Triple Crown winner. In 2015, I had made American Pharoah my pick to win the Derby for many months thinking that he might be the one to do what Big Red had done back in 1973. And so, the road to the Triple Crown began for the Zayat Family, fellow New Jersey residents, when their homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile swept to victory on May 2nd.
American Pharoah photo credit: Churchill Downs