by Victor Ryan
Past Kentucky Derby winners have ranged from the legendary (Secretariat, Seattle Slew, War Admiral, Affirmed, etc.), to the rather undecorated (Lil E. Tee, Sea Hero). And, although in most expert's estimations (sorry Smarty Jones fans), it has been at least 15 years since a truly great horse has won the Derby. But the past two winners have been as popular as any of the previous 128.
First, in 2003, there was the big red chestnut Funny Cide (not to be confused with the original Big Red, 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, of course), who turned Derby history on its head with his 1 ¼-length victory. Purchased as a 2-year-old for just $75,000 by a group of lifelong friends from Sackets Harbor, New York, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred in history to win the Derby and also became the first gelding to win since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.
America loved it. A Funny Cide retail outlet sprung up in Saratoga. The boys from Sackatoga Stable, the nom de plume of the gelding's ownership group, became media darlings overnight. Funny Cide won the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, but failed to capture the elusive Triple Crown when beat by the vaunted Empire Maker in the Belmont Stakes.
Because Funny Cide is a gelding, he is worthless in the breeding shed, and consequently he continues to race. He has remained a productive racehorse for Sackatoga but has been a cut below America's best since becoming an older horse.
While the Funny Cide saga was exciting, it was merely a warmup for the rollercoaster ride sports fans went on one year later with Smarty Jones. This horse has one is one of the most remarkable stories of past Kentucky Derby winners in the last couple of decades.
This was the story of a small horse from obscure Philadelphia Park who, unlike Funny Cide, seemed to have the greatness last seen by a Derby winner since perhaps Charlie Whittingham's Sunday Silence in 1989.
Unfortunately, Smarty Jones never got the opportunity to prove if he truly was legendary. A leg injury suffered shortly after the Triple Crown ended his career. But there will likely always be the legend of Smarty Jones.
Of how Smarty Jones ran the field off its feet in the Kentucky Derby. Fans weren't sure what to make of Smarty Jones, who had prepped at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and was undefeated. Despite his perfect six-for-six record entering the Derby, he was made just the tepid 7-1 favorite in the race. The win made him the first undefeated winner of the race since Seattle Slew in 1977.
Of how in Philadelphia, a city hardly known for its diehard racing fans, a crowd of 10,000 turned out at dawn to watch him gallop in preparation for his bid at Triple Crown immortality in the Belmont Stakes.
Of how people will remember the sound of 145,000 simultaneous groans, which fell upon Belmont Park when he was inexplicably passed in the final yards of the Belmont and was denied what even the most cynical of horsemen believed was his Triple Crown destiny. And of how he never raced again.
Smarty Jones suffered what by normal racehorse standards would be considered only a minor injury. But it was too much to risk for a colt of his value. He was retired, syndicated for $45 million, and today is a stallion in Central Kentucky. He has become one of the region's top tourist attractions. His first babies will hit the ground next January.
The measure by which all other past Kentucky Derby winners are gauged against is that of the sport's 11 Triple Crown winners, the last of which was Affirmed in 1978. Affirmed was the last of three Triple Crown winners in the decade of the 1970s, considered by most the final golden age of Thoroughbred racing.Preceding Affirmed, who swept the '78 crown winning three heroic duels with Alydar, there were Seattle Slew in 1977 and Secretariat in 1973. Secretariat remains, arguably, along with Man 'o War the greatest racehorse this country has ever produced. The remaining seven Derby winners to win the Triple Crown are Citation (1948), Assault (1946), Count Fleet (1943), Whirlaway (1941), War Admiral (1937), Gallant Fox (1930), Sir Barton (1919).
The current streak of 26 years without a Triple Crown winner is the longest in history.
Doc's Sports will be writing several weekly articles regarding the Kentucky Derby up to the day of the race and we will be following the Kentucky Derby contenders until the race lineup is set. Check back for more articles regarding past Kentucky Derby winners.