Who was Apollo? On the horse and his Kentucky Derby curse

Who was Apollo? On the horse and his Kentucky Derby curse
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Horse racing enthusiasts call it "the curse of Apollo."

Not since 1882, when Apollo won the eighth Kentucky Derby, has a horse who did not race as a 2-year-old win the Run for the Roses. 2007 Preakness winner Curlin was undefeated going into the Kentucky Derby, but each of his wins came as a 3-year-old. He finished third. Bodemeister has come closest to ending the streak, leading the 2012 Kentucky Derby in the stretch until I'll Have Another overcame him to win.

Since 2000, 14 horses have tested Apollo's curse; their average finish in the Derby was eighth.

This year, two promising colts who didn't run at 2, Justify and Magnum Moon, are set to meet April 14 in the Arkansas Derby, with the winner of that race expected to become a favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Justify hasn't even run in a stakes race yet but is seen as a Derby contender because of his impressive wins and high-profile connections.

Back in 1882, there was hardly talk of Apollo's lack of experience. The Louisville Courier-Journal noted that he was un-raced at 2 but reported that the "large, handsome, light-chestnut colt of impressive appearance and good action" had recently turned heads with two wins in the South. In The History of the Kentucky Derby 1875-1902, John Lawrence O'Connor said Apollo stood a shade over 15 hands, the only white being on his left hind leg. "He has a rather heavy, plain head, wide jowls, good stout neck...deep chest, good length...with excellent, clean and bony legs," O'Connor said.

Apollo was bred by the famous Kentuckian Daniel Swigert, and after a blistering mile workout early in the spring of his second year -- way too fast for such a young colt -- Swigert put him out to pasture for the year to recuperate. When Green B. Morris came to look at him, he was "poor in flesh," according to an article in the Toronto World some 30 years later. Morris saw something in the colt, though, and bought him for $1,200. He'd owe $1,500 if the horse managed to win the Kentucky Derby.

Morris gelded the colt and sent him to New Orleans to race as a 3-year-old, and he was beaten in the Pickwick Stakes. A few days later, though, Morris ran Apollo in the Cottrill Stakes, and he won going away under the direction of his exercise boy, Babe Hurd. Hurd stayed on Apollo in Memphis, where he won another race and began to get the attention of handicappers.

Morris decided to enter Apollo in the Kentucky Derby, which after seven years was already getting attention as a premier horse race in America. As luck would have it, it rained on Derby Day, making the track heavy, but that didn't prevent a crowd of 15,000 from coming out to watch the races. Bettors made Runnymede, a champion 2-year-old, the 4-5 favorite for the Derby, while Apollo was noticed by only a few, getting 10-1 from the oddsmakers.

Fourteen horses entered the Derby, which was the third race of the day and run back then at a mile and a half. After three false starts, the race finally began, and Harry Gilmore shot to the lead but was soon overtaken by Babcock, who set the pace early. Jockey Jimmy McLaughlin, on board Runnymede, got in traffic early but steered out of it and settled in fifth place, followed by Apollo in sixth. Harry Gilmore made another move, retaking the lead at the mile pole, and Runnymede slowly began to make up ground, inching up to third place.

At the three-quarter pole Robert Bruce went up to challenge Harry Gilmore, and the two fought neck and neck some six lengths ahead of Runnymede, who had gotten out of another traffic jam. Robert Bruce soon ran out of gas, though, and it was Harry Gilmore taking the lead again. 

But at the quarter pole, Runnymede, who had made up the distance between him and the leaders, stuck a nose in front, and in the homestretch, he seemed to be in command. The crowd leaped to its feet as they saw the favorite racing toward glory. At the eighth pole, however, he began to run out of steam, and Apollo was coming up like a bullet, in third place and taking aim at the leader. Fifty yards later he was at Runnymede's withers, and at the eighth pole, he looked him in the eye.

Apollo slowly inched away, and went under the wire a half-length ahead of Runnymede. 

It was a thrilling race, a race in which Babe Hurd sat perfectly on Apollo, waiting for the right time to strike. It was a race in which Runnymede made his move too soon and was overtaken by a fresh horse. Was Apollo the best horse that day? It certainly looked like it.
Apollo went on to have a relatively short career by the standards of the day, retiring at age 5 after an injury. His record: 24 wins in 55 starts -- not too bad for a horse who didn't even run as a 2-year-old. He died in 1887 "of lockjaw."

We still await Apollo's successor. And given how lightly Thoroughbreds are raced nowadays, we may see him or her soon -- maybe even this year.

Peter Lee is writing a book on Spectacular Bid, due to be published in spring 2018. For more information, visit spectacularbidbook.com.

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