Off to the Races: Noteworthy Kentucky Derby Winners

As Derby Day approaches on May 5, twenty horses will journey to compete in the national Kentucky Derby, the most-attended horse race in the United States. Here, we take a look at four of the biggest stories from the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.

The Venezuelan Surprise: Cañonero II

Reprinted from Cañonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner by Milton C. Toby courtesy of Blood-Horse (pg. 91, The History Press, 2014).

Reprinted from Cañonero II: The Rags to Riches Story of the Kentucky Derby’s Most Improbable Winner by Milton C. Toby courtesy of Blood-Horse (pg. 91, The History Press, 2014).

Born with a crooked front leg, no one (including his trainer) expected much from Cañonero II when he finally arrived at Churchill Downs a week before the 1971 Kentucky Derby. The horse had suffered while travelling to the United States – coming from Caracas in Venezuela, Cañonero II had to endure three unexpected flights to Miami, one of which was within a cargo plane. After finally arriving on American soil, the horse was kept in quarantine by the US Department of Agriculture for several days over concerns of an equine encephalitis that was endemic in foreign countries. By the time Cañonero II reached Louisville, he was bedraggled, and had lost at least seventy pounds, hardly looking like a future Triple Crown winner.

Many bets on the horses for that year’s Derby placed the unknown Venezuelan horse at the bottom of the pool, and it seemed in the early moments of the race that they’d been correct: Cañonero II began in 18th place of the twenty horses racing, and nearly halfway through the race, he was still galloping far out of the camera angle focused on the leading horses.  But that changed in the final quarter mile of the Derby, when he charged past his competition to win the race by 3 ¾ lengths. Cañonero II’s victory was shocking, and initially called a fluke, with many saying he would never win another race – instead, he went on to win the Preakness Stakes too, winning two of the three necessary races for a Triple Crown win.

Cañonero II unfortunately failed to win the Belmont Stakes due to a hoof infection, after which he was sold to an American ranch, where he was nursed back to health. Retired from racing in 1972, Cañonero II embarked on a stud career, and later died in 1981.

The Current Record-Holder: Secretariat
Secretariat - Image by BANAMIE [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
Image by BANAMIE [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Secretariat seemed destined for greatness from his first moments: Foaled in 1970, Secretariat stood within forty-five minutes of his birth, and nursed in just over an hour. Growing up, he was described as a “clown” of a horse, and had a big personality to match his stature: Standing at 16.2 hands (or five feet, six inches) fully grown, Secretariat was a large horse perfectly suited for racing. By the time he had finished his two-year-old season, Secretariat was a well-known racer – he won the Eclipse Award for American Champion Two-Year-Old Male Horse and the 1972 American Horse of the Year, the largest honor given to racehorses. By the time he reached the Kentucky Derby in 1973, Secretariat was the favorite to win the historic race.

Secretariat’s Derby run started out lack-luster, as he broke near the back of the his competitors, but he soon proved he was up to the challenge: After battling with competitor Sham in the final stretch, Secretariat won the Derby with a time of 1:59 2/5, the shortest time in modern Derby history. Even more impressively, his quarter-length times shortened even up to the finish line, making Secretariat the only horse in history to still be accelerating when he won the Derby. After his Kentucky Derby win, he went on to win the 1973 Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years. His performances at the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes also set new records for those races; he finished the latter with a lead of 31 lengths.

After his retirement from racing, Secretariat held a successful stud career, where he sired several major stakes winners, including Risen Star and General Assembly. He was also named the 1992 leading broodmare sire in North America. His bloodline can still be found in many modern Derby winners, and Secretariat has maintained an enduring image in pop culture, even starring as the feature of the 2010 biographical film Secretariat.

The Disqualified: Dancer’s Image

Reprinted from Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby by Milton C. Toby courtesy of Blood-Horse (pg. 32, The History Press, 2011).
Reprinted from Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby by Milton C. Toby courtesy of Blood-Horse (pg. 32, The History Press, 2011).

The only horse to ever be disqualified from a Kentucky Derby win, Dancer’s Image was among the favorites to win the 1968 Kentucky Derby, but suffered from weak ankles that were prone to injury. After a successful trip to the Derby, it was discovered at Churchill Downs that Dancer’s Image had twisted his right front ankle during either a galloping practice or while out grazing. The injury was not serious, causing only inflammation of the joint, but left Dancer’s Image in a painful position only six days before the Race for the Roses.

To help relieve the pain, a Derby veterinarian administered a dose of anti-inflammatory drug Butazolidin (Bute) to the horse, hoping it would decrease the inflammation and allow the joint to heal quickly. This choice was fraught with issues, as Bute was not and is still not allowed in a horse’s system during racing, as it can potentially increase performance. If the Bute was discovered in Dancer’s Image on race day, he would be immediately disqualified under the Derby’s zero-tolerance policy. However, it was commonly thought that Bute would clear from a horse’s system within a maximum of three days – as Dancer’s Image had double that amount of time left until the race, the drug was given. Six days later, Dancer’s Image raced to the finish line at the Derby, finishing a length and a half against his closest competitor Forward Pass.

All seemed right for Dancer’s Image, until a post-race drug test revealed that the horse was found to have Bute in his system. Dancer’s Image was immediately disqualified from the race, and the title was given to second-runner-up Forward Pass. However, the horse’s owner Peter Fuller was not one to give up quickly – claiming that the horse was given an illegal dose of the medication after his initial treatment as revenge for  Fuller’s support of the building Civil Rights Movement, Fuller sued for the title. After five years of litigation, the courts ruled that the title belonged to Forward Pass, and Fuller lost both the title and prize money for his horse.

Today, in an effort to prevent such litigation, chemists at the Derby must be able to prove scientifically beyond all doubt that a horse has a drug in their system before calling a positive result. Prior to the Dancer’s Image case, chemists had been trusted to simply call a positive or negative result. Today, a positive drug test result means a horse will automatically be disqualified from a race, a precedent set by the 1968 Derby.  Although he remains generally disgraced, the Derby still modernly recognizes Dancer’s Image as the 1968 winner in official photos of past Derby winners.

The First Grand Slam Winner: American Pharoah

The First Grand Slam Winner: American Pharoah - Image by Maryland GovPics [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Image by Maryland GovPics [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The most recent Triple Crown holder, American Pharoah won the historic title in 2015 following a winners’ drought of 37 years. Bred in Kentucky, American Pharoah was born on Groundhog Day in 2012, and surprised those around him by his calm and personable disposition. Although most racehorses are noted for their tough personalities, American Pharoah has maintained a persona recognized as “sweet and fond of people” throughout his racing years and well into his retirement. But American Pharoah had a lot more in his favor than just a good personality when he went to the 2015 Triple Crown races: The great-great-great grandson of the legendary Secretariat, American Pharoah comes from a family heritage of accomplished racehorses.

In addition to his Triple Crown win, American Pharoah also went on to win the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic, making him the first (and only) winner of the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred racing. This win is singular for American Pharoah, because it not only required him to win a Triple Crown title, but also meant he had to win against older and more experienced horses at the Breeders’ Cup Classic. As a result of his wins, American Pharoah was given the 2015 Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year and American Champion Three-Year-Old Male Horse. He has also set a record for the greatest earnings of a horse within a single season, totaling nearly nine million USD.

Today, American Pharoah is retired from racing and has an active stud career, standing at Coolmore America's Ashford Stud farm in Kentucky, where he has remained a remarkably kind horse even as a stallion.

To learn more about Horse Racing in the US, check out Arcadia Publishing.

Which horse will you be rooting for in the 2018 Kentucky Derby? Let us know in the comments below!