Kentucky Derby: Launching Pad or Brief Shining Moment

It’s the Holy Grail of thoroughbred racing, and victory in Churchill Downs’ classic on the first Saturday in May is revered as the ultimate triumph. For many horses it launches a Hall of Fame career; for others, it’s just a brief shining moment.

Triple Crown winner Justify

Among the past 15 Kentucky Derby winners were Triple Crown heroes American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) along with standouts California Chrome (2014) and Authentic (2020). All were named Horse of the Year, with Chrome honored twice.

Too Many Recent Kentucky Derby Winners Never Won Another Race

First-place finishers Medina Spirit (2021) and Maximum Security (2019) weren’t derailed despite being disqualified in favor of Mandaloun and Country House, respectively. Maximum Security won six consecutive stakes, notably the Haskell, Cigar Mile and Saudi Cup. The ill-fated Medina Spirit went 2-for-4 before dying after a workout.

Then there are the seven who never won after earning the blanket of roses – Mage, Rich Strike, Always Dreaming, Nyquist, Orb, Super Saver and Mine That Bird.

A Super Sire, A Super Gelding

Even though the Kentucky Derby was their last victory, you can’t denigrate Nyquist (2016) or Mine That Bird (2009).

Nyquist, a 2-year-old champion, was 8-for-8 after the Derby, one of its nine undefeated winners, and 0-for-3 following it. He ran third in a sloppy Preakness before flopping in the Haskell (fourth) and Pennsylvania Derby (sixth).

Mine That Bird’s 0-for-9 post- Kentucky Derby record included strong performances in the Preakness Stakes(second to super filly Rachel Alexandra) and Belmont Stakes (third after a misjudged ride by Calvin Borel). The little gelding from New Mexico was in the money only once in his last seven races, but he’s recalled fondly as the 50-1 shot who made his mark in the Triple Crown.

As for Mage (2023), Rich Strike (2022), Always Dreaming (2017), Orb (2013) and Super Saver (2010), they were one-and-done, a combined 0-for-21 after the Derby.

Pletcher’s Pair, Shug’s One Time Winner

Todd Pletcher’s pair of Always Dreaming (0-for-5) and Super Saver (0-for-3) flamed out after taking the Kentucky Derby on a wet track. Both were eighth in the Preakness and ninth and 10th, respectively, in the Travers. Super Saver was fourth in the Belmont Stakes, which Always Dreaming skipped.

Orb’s Kentucky Derby breakthrough for trainer Shug McGaughey and the venerable Phipps Stable was a feel-good story. Orb (0-for-4) didn’t win but was solid in the other big 3-year-old races, running fourth in the Preakness Stakes and third in the Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes.

Last two are Zero-for-Two

The Kentucky Derby saga of Rich Strike was beyond belief. He entered 1-for-7 and drew in from the also-eligible list at the last minute the day before. Virtually unknown rider Sonny Leon worked out a trouble-free trip from last to score at 80-1 odds, the second-biggest upset in the Kentucky Derby history. Shock the world is an overused phrase that fit perfectly here.

Trainer Eric Reed bypassed the Preakness Stakes for the Belmont Stakes, where “Richie” never threatened and finished sixth. He was 0-for-5 afterward, with the highlight a close second in the Clark Stakes. Injuries led to his retirement last December.

Mage (0-for-3) joined Apollo and Justify as the only Derby winners who didn’t run at age 2. Like Rich Strike, deep closer Mage capitalized on a very fast pace to pull a 15-1 upset. After being third in the Preakness  Stakes and second in the Haskell, he was seventh in the Travers Stakes. Illness kept him out of the Classic, and he was retired a month later.

Yet no matter how a career pans out, a Derby victory is glorious and unforgettable. Leon saluted Rich Strike on social media upon his retirement:

“Thank you, Champ, for all the great memories. You taught me and all the world that anything is possible and that anything can happen in horse racing.”

When the gates open at Churchill Downs late on the afternoon of May 4, it will be all about that dream.

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