Galloping Greats: Kentucky Derby’s Best Bred and Most Memorable Horses

Vibrant hats, refreshing mint juleps, the garland of roses presented to the victorious horse, and the rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” that fills the air at Churchill Downs Racetrack are just a few elements that contribute to the prominence of the Kentucky Derby race and prestige.

The Kentucky Derby is the initial stage of horse racing’s prestigious Triple Crown series, including the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and the Belmont Stakes in New York. The possibility of a Triple Crown victory generates significant interest in horse racing.

In 2015, American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought by clinching the Triple Crown, followed by Justify’s triumph in 2018. Despite not being the fastest horses to win the Derby, both American Pharoah and Justify etched their names in equine immortality, joining the elite group of only 13 Triple Crown winners.

Today, we seize this opportunity to curate a compilation of the most iconic and popular horses gracing the Kentucky Derby.

The Year Was: 1990
Kentucky Derby Jockey: Craig Perret

Frances A. Genter, the owner of Unbridled, experienced an exhilarating moment when her horse triumphed in the 1990 Kentucky Derby.  Despite being 92 years old and of small stature, she couldn’t see over the crowd. However, trainer Carl Nafzger provided her with a detailed description of the race as it unfolded.

Unbridled, considered a relatively unlikely winner, made a decisive move on the outer side of the track and took control at the final stretch.  From that point, he steadily pulled ahead and secured a victory by a margin of 3 ½ lengths, with jockey Craig Perret guiding him to triumph over the heavily favored Summer Squall.

Rich Strike
The Year Was: 2022
Kentucky Derby Jockey: Sonny Leon
Rich Strike may not have been the most unlikely winner in the history of the Kentucky Derby. Still, its victory in 2022 was the most surprising upset in over a century and the second-longest-odds winner ever. The only other horse to achieve a greater upset was Donerail in 1913, who had odds of 91-1 to win.

Owner Richard Dawson, trainer Eric Reed, and jockey Leon all participated in the Derby for the first time. Like the countless fans watching either in person, on TV, or on their devices, they were equally astonished by the outcome.

While upsets have become a regular occurrence on the first Saturday in May, nothing compares to the unexpected triumph of Rich Strike.  This element is what adds to the thrill of the race year after year and why Kentucky betting apps continue to receive more underdog wagers on participating horses than ever before.

The Year Was: 1973
Kentucky Derby Jockey: Ron Turcotte
Secretariat’s dominance in the Triple Crown races elevated him from a mere racehorse to a beloved symbol. His extraordinary performances included setting a new track record of 1:59 2/5 at Churchill Downs during his victory in the Kentucky Derby, a remarkable feat.

He then displayed his exceptional abilities by triumphing over the competition in record time at Pimlico in the Preakness. Finally, Secretariat solidified his legendary status by achieving a staggering 31-length victory in the Belmont, establishing both a new stakes-record margin and a mind-boggling time of 2:24 for the 1 1/2-mile distance.

Even beyond the dirt tracks, Secretariat’s brilliance extended to the turf, securing his status as the champion grass horse. Undoubtedly, Secretariat is an indispensable figure in the annals of horse racing history. His iconic triumph in the Belmont Stakes, while widely celebrated, would have been impossible without his astounding and record-breaking victory in the Kentucky Derby. He stands as the standard by which all other horses are measured.

The Year Was: 1978
Kentucky Derby Jockey: Steve Cauthen
The horse won the Triple Crown in 1978, making it the 12th horse to achieve this feat. Affirmed gained notoriety not only for his Triple Crown victory but also for his intense rivalry with Alydar, with whom he competed in ten races.

Following Affirmed’s triumph, there was a 37-year gap until American Pharoah claimed the next Triple Crown title in 2015, setting a new record. Additionally, Affirmed set another record by winning the year after Seattle Slew’s victory, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown in consecutive years.

Smarty Jones
The Year Was: 2004
Kentucky Derby Jockey: Stewart Elliot
Smarty Jones emerged victorious in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, triumphing in the Preakness Stakes as well. This remarkable horse ended a lengthy period of anticipation, becoming the first unbeaten steed to secure the Derby crown since Seattle Slew’s monumental victory in 1977.

Notably, jockey Stewart Elliott achieved a historic feat by clinching his first Kentucky Derby win, a feat unmatched since Ronnie Franklin’s triumph aboard Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Derby.


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