Ranking the 10 Most Memorable Horses in Kentucky Derby History

Jessica Paquette@jmpaquetteFeatured ColumnistApril 29, 2015

Ranking the 10 Most Memorable Horses in Kentucky Derby History

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    The Kentucky Derby is one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year.

    Each Kentucky Derby is a memorable event, but there are some editions that resonate more than others. Whether it is the sheer brilliance of Smarty Jones or Alysheba overcoming tremendous adversity at the top of the stretch to win, some races are hard to forget.

    Here is a look at some of the most memorable horses that have made history in the Run for the Roses. The things that made each of these horses unforgettablethe rivalries, the upsets, the determination and even the controversyare the very things that make horse racing so intriguing. 

10. Funny Cide, 2003

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    AL BEHRMAN/Associated Press

    The team:  Funny Cide was owned in partnership by Sackatoga Stable, founded by Jack Knowlton. This group was known for traveling to the races in style, usually in a big yellow school bus to accommodate the many owners of the stable.

    The race: Defeated by the regal Empire Maker just a month before in the Wood Memorial Stakes, it seemed unlikely that the modest New York-bred gelding could turn the tables on his rival. After a bump at the start, he showed how big his heart was with a resolute drive in which he prevailed by a 1 ¾ lengths over Empire Maker. 

    What we remember: Funny Cide, with his humble beginnings and personable connections, was the underdog that everyone wanted to root for. 

9. Silver Charm, 1997

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    CHARLES BENNETT/Associated Press

    The team: Just one year after Bob Baffert suffered a crushing defeat in the 1996 Kentucky Derby when Grindstone beat Cavonnier at the wire, he was back with Silver Charm. Owned by the popular pair of Bob and Beverly Lewis, the gray colt quickly became a fan favorite. 

    The race: The second choice at odds of 4-1, he rated off of the pace set by his archrival Free House and the brilliant Pulpit. At the top of the stretch, he put a head in front and valiantly fought off a late charge from the favorite Captain Bodgit to win by a head under jockey Gary Stevens. 

    What we remember: Silver Charm's victory in the 1997 Kentucky Derby was the catalyst that launched Baffert into the upper echelon of the training ranks. Known for his resiliency and toughness, Silver Charm had the heart of a champion, which earned him the blanket of roses. 

8. Dancer's Image/Forward Pass 1968

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    Anonymous/Associated Press

    The team: Dancer's Image was owned and bred by New England legend Peter Fuller, who had donated some of the colt's earnings from previous races to the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    The race: Dancer's Image roared home in the stretch to win after being in 10th position with only ½ mile to go.  Forward Pass was near the lead throughout and finished 1 ½ lengths behind Dancer's Image. The real drama began after the race when Dancer's Image tested positive for a then-banned drug, phenylbutazone, commonly known as "bute." Conspiracy theories flew, but the disqualification stood.

    What we remember: Dancer's Image crossed the line first, the connections of Forward Pass got the prize money, the official race chart shows Dancer's Image was the winner with no mention of a disqualification, and Forward Pass is officially recognized as the winner. Multiple lawsuits were brought by Fuller before he passed away. The Derby has been run 140 times, and Dancer's Image remains the only horse to be disqualified.

7. Affirmed, 1978

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The team: Jockey Steve Cauthen became the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown by piloting Affirmed to victory in the Derby, Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 1978. Cauthen was also named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year and is still the only jockey to ever win the prestigious award.

    The race: Despite having won three of their five meetings as two-year-olds, Affirmed went off as second choice to Alydar. Never worse than third, Affirmed held off the charge from Alydar to win by 1 ½ lengths and take the first leg of the Triple Crown.

    What we remember: Russell and Chamberlain, Ali and Fraser, Bird and Magic, Affirmed and Alydar: great sports rivalries not just of their time but of all time. It's been 37 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, and with each passing year, the anticipation for the next Triple Crown winner grows. Someday, there will probably be one, but seeing another rivalry with the mainstream attention of Affirmed and Alydar is much less likely. 

6. Smarty Jones, 2004

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    The team: While less than 700 miles from Louisville, Kentucky, Someday Farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania, was in many ways a world away from Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby. That all changed in the spring of 2004 when Smarty Jones, trained by John Servis and ridden by Stewart Elliot, entered the starting gate as the favorite in the 130th Run for the Roses.

    The race:  Smarty Jones tore through the mud to pull even with second-choice Lion Heart and engage in a scintillating stretch duel. As Smarty pulled in front and approached the wire, legendary announcer Tom Durkin introduced to the country to "the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977!"

    What we remember: Not only the betting favorite at post time, Smarty Jones was also the fan favorite. From humble beginnings to the top of the horse racing world, Smarty Jones provided his jockey, trainer, and owner/breeder with a lifetime of memories in what was the first trip to The Kentucky Derby for each one. 

5. Winning Colors, 1988

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    Garry Jones/Associated Press

    The team: There are some combinations that are timeless. In 1988, Gary Stevens and D. Wayne Lukas teamed up for a history-making performance with Winning Colors in the Kentucky Derby. Twenty-five years later, they were back with Oxbow in the Preakness Stakes.

    The race: As a filly taking on male rivals, the odds were not in her favor, but Winning Colors was supported by the public and went off at odds of 7-2. She broke sharply and went straight to the front, and from that point, under a confident ride by Stevens, made every call a winning one. 

    What we remember: For only the third time in history, Winning Colors was a filly that beat the boys and joined an exclusive club alongside Regret and Genuine Risk. 

4. Sunday Silence, 1989

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    The team: Trained by the great Charlie Whittingham, the West Coast-based colt launched one of the greatest rivalries in the history of the sport. 

    The race: In the 1989 edition of the Kentucky Derby, Sunday Silence was pitted against the heavily favored entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring. It was Easy Goer who gave him the greatest challenge, but Sunday Silence assumed command at the top of the stretch to draw off comfortably.

    What we remember: Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were the ultimate "West vs. East Coast" rivalry. The 1989 Kentucky Derby was the beginning of their thrilling rivalry that lasted through the Triple Crown and renewed in the Breeders' Cup. 

3. Alysheba, 1987

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    The team: Though Chris McCarron has ridden many great champions, Alysheba's victory in the 1987 Kentucky Derby could well be one of the most memorable of his Hall of Fame career. The pair were split seconds away at the top of the stretch from what could have been a catastrophic accident. 

    The race: Heading into the race, Alysheba did not seem like a top contender, with only a maiden victory to his credit. At he approached the top of the stretch, he clipped heels and stumbled badly, nearly falling and almost unseating his jockey. Against the odds, he was able to right himself and won by ¾ of a length. 

    What we remember: The strapping bay colt avoided a disaster for both himself and McCarron, and in doing so, he turned in one of the most remarkable performances in Kentucky Derby history. 

2. Unbridled, 1990

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    The team: Owned by Frances A. Genter, Unbridled gave his elderly owner the thrill of a lifetime when he won the 1990 Kentucky Derby. At 92, she was too petite to see over the crowd, so trainer Carl Nafzger gave her a play-by-play of the race.

    The race: A relative longshot in the field, Unbridled made his move on the outside and seized command at the top of the stretch. At that point, he drew clear to win by 3 ½ lengths under jockey Craig Perret over the heavily favored Summer Squall.

    What we remember: Watching Nafzger call the race for Genter is one of the most touching moments in Kentucky Derby history. As Unbridled begins to draw off, Nafzger embraces Genter and says, "He's going to win! Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you!" The raw emotion of achieving such a lifelong dream is the embodiment of the thrill of horse racing. 

1. Secretariat, 1973

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    The team: The story of Secretariat began with the toss of a coin between Penny Chenery and Odgen Phipps to decide who would get first choice between a pair of foals. Phipps won the toss, but Chenery wound up with the chestnut colt that would grow into the most legendary thoroughbred racehorse in history. 

    The race: Secretariat won the first jewel of the Triple Crown with a 2 ½-length triumph, and in doing so, set a track record1:59.40—that still stands today. The most remarkable part was that each quarter-mile was faster than the one before it. 

    What we remember: No list is complete without Secretariat. Though his Belmont Stakes triumph is one of the most iconic moments in the history of horse racing, there would have been no Triple Crown without his stunning, record-setting victory in the Kentucky Derby. He is the bar against which which all other horses are judged. 

    All odds via Equibase.com.


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