Ghosts of Kentucky Derby Past

Sunday Silence
ESPN ran a marathon of old Kentucky Derby Classics, and after watching several of the races from the 70s and 80s, I came to the conclusion that I missed out on the best Triple Crown runs simply because I had the misfortune to be born in 1987. Actually, that is not a new conclusion for me, but watching the races of years gone by on my big screen TV definitely solidified that thought.
As brave as Eight Belles was in valiantly striding after Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, how can she compare with the great Genuine Risk? Not only did Genuine Risk win but she did so in style. After making the lead before the field straightened out for home, she continued for home straight and true, never wavering as she charged down the center of the track to become just the second filly to ever win the nation’s most famous race. She would continue on to finish second in both the Preakness and the Belmont.
Then there is Alysheba who did an Afleet Alex before that colt was even born. With Bet Twice in the lead, jockey Chris McCarron set down the son of Alydar for what would become a very eventful stretch drive. As Alysheba came up to Bet Twice, the Fountain of Youth winner veered out slightly causing Alysheba to clip heels with him. Alysheba promptly recovered and twice more came at Bet Twice, who drifted out each time Alysheba approached him. With Bet Twice finally kept to a straight course, Alysheba was finally able to get past that rival to win by three-quarters of a length.
After a lively discussion centering on post positions on Twitter this morning in which Ferdinand’s win from the rail post was brought up, it was only fitting that the ill-fated Derby winner’s victory was part of the ESPN marathon. Fifty-to-one longshot Black Onyx, who had drawn the rail, was scratched from this year’s Kentucky Derby after it was discovered that he had a bone chip in his left front ankle. That led one Twitter user to call post position one cursed. Sure the past 3 contenders from that spot have not fared well, but post position one used to produce plenty of winners. However, Ferdinand was the last to win from that position.
I have often read Brian Zipse’s recollections of the heralded Sunday Silence/Easy Goer rivalry, but what people generally don’t mention is Sunday Silence’s erratic stretch run in the 1989 Kentucky Derby. Jockey Pat Valenzuela said directly after the race that Sunday Silence has shied away from the crowd noise coming down the stretch. His ducking and weaving did little to deter him, though, as he won by a comfortable margin.
Another Zipse favorite was the sensational Spectacular Bid. Despite General Assembly’s best efforts, The Bid collared him leaving the far turn and it was over from there. In a decade that had already seen three Triple Crown winners, Spectacular Bid was expected to bring the total to four and become the third consecutive winner in as many years. After running 1.54:2 in the Preakness, a time that was officially faster than Secretariat’s disputed time, the nation had all but crowned their new hero. However, a freak accident involving a safety pin prevented The Bid from sweeping the series and began a Triple Crown drought that has yet to be ended.
Last but not least is the trio of Triple Crown winners from the seventies: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Each carved their name in history in different ways. Secretariat was the first winner to break the two minute mark, setting a track and stakes record in the process. In doing so, he also ran each quarter mile faster than the last, a feat that has never been matched. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown while remaining undefeated, the only Triple Crown winner to ever do so. Affirmed made his run at history with the gallant Alydar there with him every step of the way. The pair made history by running the fastest last mile in Belmont Stakes history despite Affirmed setting a tepid early pace.
In 25 years I have yet to see a Triple Crown winner, the last sweep coming 9 years before I was born. Since 1978, there have been many to come so close and just miss. Some of them I remember clearly, some are vague recollections, and others I don’t remember at all. Will this year be the year that a talented and gutsy colt breaks the drought? In a couple weeks we will find out if a Triple Crown win is even possible or if some lucky winner will the end the possibility before the Belmont even rolls around. 


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Older Comments about Ghosts of Kentucky Derby Past...

Rail makes the earlies easier to contend and win so the lates now are even more compromised.
Great comment, vic.
YES, you did Swale, Norther Dancer, Secretariat, Slew, Affirmed/ALydar, Bid etc.
Derby parameters in flux, or are there too many lates here? Two main things guide the evaluation of a horse race: 1) it has all happened before in racing and the observant follower can recognize the patterns and 2) CHANGE is inevitable in our lives. The wise prepare for paradigm shifts. A shift in the parameters MAY be upon us. The total energy standards of the range 163-165 (updated Trackmaster speed ratings bumped this up from 161-163) along with a very stable % median range of 67.9 averaging in their last several Derby preps have been the standards since Charismatic. Only twice (Barbaro, the Brown Out) have median earlier than that standard come in, but then these two had huge advantages in total energy, which, one could argue, off set them. Over the years those running consistently above 67.9 or below 67.2 (lots of them in Pyro, Paddy O’Prado, Creative Cause, El Padrino, Union Rags, Afleet Alex, Dullahan) were just too late. I have, just this week, discovered independent research in this same area that confirms this earlier requirement. The Silky Sullivan types LOOK the part, but they simply don’t deliver come Derby Day. Colts demonstrating a drop off in total energy within the bounds of the correct % median are under-represented. Those many colts who’s %median climbed as the distances increased never made it either (Pollard’s Vision, Bob n’John, Bellamy Road and many others) whereas those right on the boundary at 68.0 often were pace animals that stuck around to the finish: Lion Heart, Hard Spun. Given this as a back drop to this year’s run, we have to pivot the entire understanding of the race on the logical undefeated post time favorite: Verrazano. (An aside we were all looking at the past performances of Derby 1973 as I had it out yesterday and the thing that struck everyone was how many starts all the colts had that year before the Derby, they were ready). IN many years, one could easily make a case for his lack of seasoning with so few starts. What really got me is his very low % median and his exiting paces of very slow fractions. Averaging % median, he is just now getting into the bottom part of the range at 67.2. Barbaro was like this one a style less position front runner: NO matter the pace, he was close to it either fast or slow. SO, we either have a budding superstar, or a big one that is going to be exposed as running too late. Either way the odds are not going to be close to worth it. The reason a paradigm shift might be in the works is what we see in the rest of the major runners; Revolutionary is at the bottom end of % median, Normandy Invasion is far too late but improving, Charming Kitten (too late at 66.5), Java’s War (in the turf category at 66.5 too too far back) and Vyjack coming in at a paltry 66.8. SO IF these get up, we know things have changed because based upon tradition they should not. On the other side of the coin are those too early of which the biggest is Goldencents (68.5), Frac Daddy, Falling Sky (correct name?), like past year’s Trinniberg, Giant Finish?, Itsmyluckyday (one race wonder, but close to parameters that single time). The rest have to be matched up fu qualify, not all just these (I hate to say it but Lukas) Oxbow although going backward, Golden Pool, Mylute, Over, Palace , Will Take Charge Overanalyze and Orb. The match up will distinguish them, but so far I am in agreement with many who that think this year it is too deep to logically wager on unless exotics are your thing. Let’s see if the paradigm has changed or not: it all depends on how Verrazano does
Nice memories>> It's funny how Bid's Belmont has distilled down to *a freak accident with a safety pin* over the years.
Great write up, Ashley!
oh the wonder of the 70s and the exciting horses of that decade Starting with the improbable Canonero II then 3 Triple Crowns and ending with the fantastic Bid Never be another decade like it
Total historian here when it comes to horse racing, as I love the older generation horses. Nice story.
Love it ... a little too much mention of that Zipse guy, but still a fun article!

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