With the Winter almost over and Spring firmly with us, we can begin to look forward to the new racing season and naturally the Triple Crown so thought I’d look at some of the greatest winners of the first leg of the treble, the Kentucky Derby and open up the discussion of who are the best ever to win the race?
Obviously any horse that wins the Kentucky Derby must be a top class thoroughbred that possesses both great speed and enough stamina to get him around the one and a half mile dirt track at Churchill Downs in Louisville and every racing fan has their particular favourite but the five winners which stand out in the post-war era are those who went on to win the Triple Crown.
Ridden beautifully by Steve Cauthen, Affirmed who had tracked the leader, Sensitive Prince all the way in the 1978 Derby made his move after rounding the final turn before kicking on with astonishing speed down the stretch. His great rival Ayldar, who had gone off as the race favourite attempted to close in the final furlong, but even his great finishing burst was not enough to reel in Affirmed who had too much left in the tank and held on to win by 1½ lengths.
Amazingly, Ayldar would go on to finish second to Affirmed in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes as the Laz Berrera trained champion would go on to complete the Triple Crown, the last to do so. Ayldar remains first and only horse to have finished second in all three Triple Crown races and is probably the best horse never to win the Triple Crown, let alone a leg and in any other year John Veitch’s Colt would have probably cemented his name in the history books for the right reasons but deserves a mention in this roll of honour.
Seattle Slew 1977
A descendant of the great Nearco, Seattle Slew became a household name across the States and was famed as much for his ‘war dance’ (tiptoeing on the track) as he was for winning the Derby. He came into the Kentucky Derby as the Champion Two year old and the winner of his three races as a three year old; breaking every track record in the process.
It was no surprise therefore to see him start the Derby as a red hot favourite, going off -200 in the Kentucky Derby odds, but he started badly, swerving badly as they broke from the stalls, which stopped him from taking up his customary position from the front. However, jockey, Jean Cruguet soon had him under control and by the time they reached the top of the stretch there was only ever going to be one winner. Seattle Slew ended up winning comfortably by 1½ length’s from Run Daisy Run. There was no such problems in the subsequent two legs of the Triple Crown as he went on to win both the 1977 Preakness and Belmont Stakes for his trainer, William Turner Jr.
Seattle Slew and Affirmed were to meet each other twice in 1978, with Seattle Slew winning on both occasions and he is officially rated as the ninth best racehorse in American history.
Known universally as ‘Big Red’ this outstanding chestnut thoroughbred still holds the track record for the Kentucky Derby with a time of 1 minute 59.4 seconds and is only one of two horses to have won the race in under two minutes. In his winning season, ‘Big Red’ ran every quarter of the Churchill Downs track faster than the previous quarter, meaning that he continued to accelerate from the start to the finish. He finished the 1973 Derby over two lengths clear of Sham.
In his third warm up race for the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat could only manage third place behind stablemates, Angle Light and Sham, which is why he only started the Derby as joint favourite and why trainer, Lucien Laurin was not that keen on his chances.
Secretariat of course went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948. He was voted the best American racehorse of the 20th century.
Like many winners of the Kentucky Derby have, Citation began his three year old season as the champion two year old from the season before after winning eight of his nine races. He started his three year old career in amazing style by defeating the 1947 racehorse of the year, Armed, in an allowance race, it was one of the very few times in history that a three year old had beaten an older horse so early in his career.
He went on to win four more times before claiming the Kentucky Derby a race he won easily by over three lengths from stablemate, Coaltown. This win however had to be achieved without his original jockey, Al Snider, who had tragically died in a fishing accident in Florida. Snider was replaced by Eddie Arcaro, who holds the record, along with Bill Hartack of five wins in the race.
Known by many as the "Club-footed Comet", after an accident as a foal seriously damaged his hoof, Assault defied that injury along with a host of other illnesses’ to win not only the Kentucky Derby but also the Triple Crown. In the process, he became the first horse bred in Texas to win the Triple Crown and remains the only one to do so.
He had only a moderate career as a two year old, winning just two from twelve starts and surprised his connections when winning his first major race as a three year old, taking the prestigious Wood Memorial. However in his final preparation race for Churchill Downs he failed to finish in the places and was only considered as an outside chance in the big race itself.
It was with some astonishment therefore when he hosed up in the Kentucky Derby, winning it by a record margin of eight lengths a record that still stands today.
It’s difficult to separate any of these true American racing greats and the debate about who tops the list struggle to draw to a conclusion. You also have many individual winners of the Derby who never went on to win the Triple Crown, these include the likes of Big Brown and Smarty Jones in recent years in addition to War Emblem, Silver Charm, Unbridled and Swale amongst others and a whole new debate surrounds whether Uncle Mo is good enough to join the list of legends in 2011.
Fitting the profile of many Derby winners before him, Uncle Mo confirmed his status as champion juvenile when winning at the Breeders Cup meeting back in November and there has already been plenty of expectation attached to the saddle of the Todd Pletcher trained Colt as the nation looks to find its first Triple Crown winner in over 30 years. One thing is for sure, he'll have his work cut out to match the achievements of those who won before him, especially in era where it's more difficult to win just one leg let alone all three of the Triple Crown.