It’s been called the most exciting two minutes in sports, but in reality it takes years of breeding, training and trials to get a three year old thoroughbred ready for those most exciting two minutes. Each Kentucky Derby winner has a riveting story, but the greatest Kentucky Derby winners impacted the sport long after the race was run.
Voted the second best American thoroughbred in the twentieth century (behind only the legendary Man o’ War), this Babe Ruth of horses ran the fastest Kentucky Derby ever in 1973, finishing under two minutes. Secretariat would go on to break the stakes record for the Preakness and the Belmont, making him not only one of only eleven horses to win the American Triple Crown, but won in such a decisive fashion.
Secretariat’s red coat carrying white and blue silks gave America a hero when it desperately needed one during the time of Watergate and Vietnam. When retired, he became a leading sire of broodmares. Sadly, he died at age 18 in 1988 from laminitis partially brought on by his obesity.
The Kentucky Derby never would have become the most desired race to win if it were not for the fanatical works of Matt Winn (1861 to 1949). When Winn was President of Churchill Downs, he lobbied long and hard to bring the nation’s best three year olds to Louisville. Back in the late 1800s and the early 1900s, the Kentucky Derby was not considered a competitive enough race to bother shipping horses by rail.
And then Winn managed to get Harry Payne Whitney, owner of the chestnut filly Regret to run in the Kentucky Derby of 1915. She would be the first filly and one of only three to win the race. The publicity surrounding her win would make the Kentucky Derby the nation’s most famous horse race. Regret retired from racing to have eleven foals, only one of which became a stakes winner.
Anything can happen in the Kentucky Derby and usually does. It’s hard to imagine that a horse would start his three year old campaign in the Derby itself. But that’s exactly what happened with Jet Pilot in 1947. He won four times as a two year old. His trainer decided to not race him until the first Saturday in May. Jet Pilot went immediately to the lead and never gave it up. After his win, he kicked a policeman in the pants.
Jet Pilot finished fourth in the Preakness and received an injury while running in the Withers Stakes. Retired to stud after the Withers, he went on to become an influential sire.