By Mark Coomes
Secretariat was incomparable but not unbeatable. He lost to a plug named Onion.
Six years ago, The Blood-Horse magazine published an ambitious volume titled �Thoroughbred Champions: The Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century.� Meticulously researched and artfully written, it is a concisely encyclopedic tour de force. Yet the opening sentence is a virtual apology for every line that lies within.
�One approaches (the list),� turfwriter William Nack wrote in the foreword, �with a nagging sense of its folly as a rational exercise and of the maddening arbitrariness of its outcome.�
We at The Courier-Journal, chock full of folly and arbitrariness, have decided to pursue this irrational exercise
to the nth degree.
Instead of whittling 100 years down to 100 horses, we boiled 130 Kentucky Derbys down to a single question: �Who is the greatest winner of America�s greatest race?�
The answer is � There is no definitive answer. �Even if you could actually rank these horses from different eras against one another,� Daily Racing Form publisher Steven Crist said, �having so many good ones in one starting gate would create bizarre dynamics within the race � unlike any race any of them ever had to run.�
We asked Crist, Nack and two other sharpies � Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer, inventor of the Daily Racing Form�s revolutionary Beyer Speed Figures; and Louisville native Marty McGee, the Form�s chief correspondent at Churchill Downs � which great Derby winner would capture the ultimate roseate run.
They know what you know: That no expert panel or computer program can predict with certainty which horse would win such a contentious race. By mixing our experts� input with facts, fiction and fun, we came up with a winner nonetheless.
Let the arbitrary folly begin. Our Fantasy Derby will have 14 entrants � enough to fill one starting gate
� and they will be the Derby winners who ranked highest on The Blood- Horse�s Top 100. At No. 42, Alysheba was the lowest-ranked Derby winner to make the cut. Northern Dancer (43), Silver Charm (63) and 12 others did not. The resulting field included six horses who preferred to run on or near the early lead:
Affirmed, Citation, Count Fleet, Seattle Slew, Swaps and War Admiral. Wise handicappers know that pace makes the race. They also know that speedy horses, like mischievous children, tend to bring out the worst
in each other.
�The front-runners (would) cook one another early,� Crist said. �So wonderful horses such as Swaps, Seattle Slew and Affirmed have zero chance.�
Ditto for War Admiral and Count Fleet. The great Citation, however, was content at times to let others seize the early lead. As a 3-year-old, he won four major stakes races, the 1948 Derby included, in which he trailed by three to six lengths after the first quarter-mile.
Most Derby winners rally from off the pace. Our fantasy winner will, too.
At the end of the profiles is a chart that reveals our winner, with footnotes that tell how the race was won � and lost.
(Second in The Blood-Horse�s top 100) Lifetime record: 21-16-3-1. Claims to fame: Won the 1973 Triple Crown. Owns the world record for 1� miles on dirt (2 minutes, 24 seconds) and the Kentucky Derby
record (1:59 2/5).
Why he should win: Secretariat is arguably the greatest racehorse ever born. On the morning of the 1973 Belmont Stakes, Hall of Fame trainer Hollie Hughes, who won the 1916 Derby with George Smith, told Secretariat�s jockey, Ron Turcotte, �Believe me, boy, you are riding the greatest horse of all time, and I have seen them all.�
That was before Secretariat won the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths.
Why he shouldn�t: Great as he was, Secretariat lost five times in 21 starts, most memorably to a plug named Onion. If Secretariat can lose to Onion, he could certainly lose to these all-time greats.
Lifetime record: 45-32-10-2. Claims to fame: Won 1948 Triple Crown and 16 consecutive races from 1948-50, tied with Cigar for the modern record.
Why he should win: Citation was one of 18 champions and eight Derby winners that Ben Jones and his son, Jimmy, trained for Calumet Farm. They saw every great horse of the 20th century. Both believed Citation was the best.
Citation�s record as a 3-year-old is probably the best in racing history: 20 starts, 19 wins, one second.
Of Citation�s lone defeat, a one length loss in a minor stakes race, legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro said, �I could have caught (the winner), but I wasn�t about to burn up that horse for an $8,300 pot with all those $100,000 races ahead.�
Why he shouldn�t: The only discernible reason why Citation would lose � other than being flat outrun � is that he�s one of six horses in this field who preferred to run on or near the early lead. But in the �48 Derby, he spotted Coaltown a six-length head start and still drew off to a 3 �-length victory.
SPECTACULAR BID (10)
Lifetime record: 30-26-2-1. Claims to fame: Owns the world record for 1 � miles on dirt (1:57 4/5); set or tied eight track records at five different distances.
Why he should win: Versatile enough to win on the lead or from behind, The Bid was a truly spectacular
3-year-old who won his first seven races by a combined 44 lengths. The 1979 Triple Crown was a foregone conclusion until he stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont.
Why he shouldn�t: A tactical error by Spectacular Bid�s jockey, 19-year-old Ronnie Franklin, contributed
to The Bid�s Belmont defeat. A similarly youthful mistake would spell doom in this tough field.
Lifetime record: 60-32-15-9. Claim to fame: Won 1941Triple Crown.
Why he should win: Whirlaway excelled at making one big, late run, the ideal style for winning races in which the early pace projects to be scorchingly fast.
Why he shouldn�t: Whirlaway won only half his starts and had a bad habit of losing ground by veering
toward the outside rail.
GALLANT FOX (28)
Lifetime record: 17-11-3-2. Claims to fame: Won 1930 Triple Crown; lost 1930 Travers to 100-1 shot Jim Dandy, perhaps the biggest upset in U.S. racing history.
Why he should win: Gallant Fox owned such special talent that Hall of Fame jockey Earl Sande came out of retirement to ride the colt � and waived his customary retainer fee in lieu of 10 percent of the Fox�s earnings.
Why he shouldn�t: Yes, the Travers was run over a sticky, muddy track. And, yes, Gallant Fox all but beat himself by engaging a rival in an early speed duel. But a fantasy Derby winner simply doesn�t lose by eight lengths to Jim Dandy, who won just seven races in 141 starts.
Lifetime record: 100-50-17-17. Claim to fame: Last horse to win the Derby off just four career starts.
Why he should win: Former Churchill Downs president Matt Winn, who witnessed the first 75 Kentucky Derbys, called Exterminator �the greatest all-around thoroughbred in American racing history.�
Why he shouldn�t: Pre-World War II thoroughbreds were more durable but not nearly as fast their latter-day kin. What�s more, Exterminator lost eight of his 15 starts at age 3, including five consecutive races after his 1918 Derby win.
SUNDAY SILENCE (31)
Lifetime record: 14-9-5-0. Claim to fame: Only horse to win two Triple Crown races (Derby and Preakness) and the Breeders� Cup Classic in the same year.
Why he should win: Sunday Silence was a fighter who hated to lose. Only one of his five defeats was by more than � of a length.
Why he shouldn� t : As a 3-year-old in 1989, Sunday Silence was a good horse in the spring but not great until the fall.
Lifetime record: 42-18-6-7. Claim to fame: Won the 1946 Triple Crown.
Why he should win: It�s hard to count out a horse that was tough enough to overcome stepping on a surveyor�s spike as a weanling, an injury so severe that Assault was nearly euthanized. �The Clubfooted
Comet� was left with a limping walk that belied his swift, smooth running stride.
Why he shouldn�t: The great Eddie Arcaro, Assault�s jockey, admired the horse greatly but believed Citation was better.
Lifetime record: 26-11-8-2. Claims to fame: Won the 1987 Derby and Preakness and the 1988 Breeders� Cup Classic; second horse ever to run three 1 �-mile races in less than 2:00.
Why he should win: Alysheba excelled at the classic distance of 1 � miles: 12 starts, eight wins, two seconds � all in Grade 1 events. Why he shouldn�t: Alysheba threw some real clunkers on occasion.
He lost nine of his first 10 races and was soundly trounced in the Belmont, Travers, Pimlico Special and Hollywood Gold Cup.
A bad hoof very likely cost Spectacular Bid, with jockey Ronnie Franklin, the 1979 Triple Crown.
And the winner is...Spectacular Bid
The Bid scored a mild upset by racing in perfect striking position throughout the fastest first mile in Derby history. He stayed far enough from the early leaders to avoid exhausting himself yet close enough to get the jump on rivals who rallied
from farther back in the pack. Secretariat, who finished a half-length back in third, was hindered by a rough start in which he was bumped by War Admiral and pinched back by Swaps.
In the chart below, PP equals post position.
The first number in each subsequent column shows each horse�s running position at various stages of the race. The second number reflects the length of his lead over the horse immediately behind him.