The Kentucky Derby is a hard race to win, we all know that. But sometimes a horse that seems much the best in March or April will fail to live up to his high ranking on race day.
Horses are like other highly conditioned athletes: They can have a bad day, or the sporting press can fall in love with a champion human athlete or horse and overhype credentials, heaven forbid.
Consider how invincible Mike Tyson seemed before Buster Douglas knocked the heavyweight champion for a loop in February 1990. There are numerous other examples, including many from the 139-year history of America's most famous race.
A horse named Himyar, for instance, lost the 1878 Derby despite being held in such high esteem he went to the post at 1 to 4 odds (.25 cents on the dollar) -- the shortest odds for any horse in Kentucky Derby history.
Long forgotten by all except those crazy enough (like me) to do intensive Derby research, Himyar was one of 12 horses in history who failed to win the Derby despite going off as odds-on favorites, (lower than $1 to $1 odds).
Some of those heavily bet losing favorites were famous horses. Native Dancer for one, suffered his only career defeat in 22 lifetime starts in the 1953 Kentucky Derby. Easy Goer -- a very popular odds on favorite and a future Hall of Famer -- lost the 1989 Derby to Sunday Silence, another future Hall of Famer.
While both Native Dancer and Easy Goer ran well in defeat -- second, like their predecessor Himya -- some of the most disappointing performances in Kentucky Derby history were by equally popular horses that ran so poorly they left their fans in disbelief.
From my point of view, the three worst Derby failures in modern times were Holy Bull, Arazi and Silky Sullivan.
Silky Sullivan might have been the most unusual horse in racing history. He became famous in California by falling so many lengths behind during the early stages of his races that it looked impossible for him to get home first.
Yet, Silky Sullivan won half of his 14 starts going into the 1958 Derby, including an absolutely astonishing victory in a 6 ½ furlong sprint race in which he trailed by 41 lengths after the first quarter mile. I was so disbelieving in the published margin that I watched films of the race and queried Daily Racing Form officials to verify its accuracy.
"The margin was 100 percent accurate," a DRF statistical editor said. "And," he continued, "as far as I know, no other horse in racing history has ever won a race at any distance coming from 41 lengths back, much less a sprint race."
In Silky Sullivan's next start, he won the 1 ⅛ mile Santa Anita Derby by 3 lengths after trailing by 26 on the backstretch. The win made him an instant folk hero with California fans, sports writers, TV and radio broadcasters.
Silky Sullivan even lost his next race by 16 lengths back in California and it looked like he had lost his appeal. But, this exciting stretch runner regained his legion of fans by winning his next two starts -- both sprints -- with his patented whirlwind finish.
Eastern-based fans might never have appreciated this "superhorse from California," but Silky Sullivan remained a star of the highest magnitude to fans out west long after he retired in 1959. For several years, Silky attracted huge crowds when paraded in front of California grandstands on St. Patrick's Day, and he received countless batches of fan mail well past his death in 1977.
Arazi was another highly praised horse who flopped in the Kentucky Derby.
Born in Kentucky, Arazi was a major stakes winner on European grass courses as a 2-year-old in 1991. He was in fact a big story when he came to Churchill Downs that fall to run on a dirt track for the first time and compete in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Compete Arazi did, turning in one of the most spectacular last-to-first runs around the final turn to beat the top 2-year-olds in America by five lengths under a hand ride.
Based on that memorable Churchill Downs performance and the fact that Arazi had won a prep race in France at one mile a month before the '92 Kentucky Derby, the European invader was a near unanimous choice to win the Derby. Virtually every expert said the rest of the field would be running for second money.
They were even more convinced when they saw Arazi begin the same high powered turn move he used to win the BC Juvenile six months earlier. But that was it for Arazi. No matter how hard jockey Pat Valenzuela tried to urge him to continue his electrifying run, the colt's rally fizzled. He struggled to finish eighth.
"He was expected to be Secretariat," Valenzuela said after the race. "He's a good colt, but couldn't live up to all the hype." To which trainer Patrick Boutin added: "He had a rough winter in Europe and we just couldn't get him fit enough to win this tough 1 ¼ mile race."
Still another extremely popular Derby disappointment -- Holy Bull -- is No. 1 on my list of Derby failures. Not many people who saw his dominating scores in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes could understand what happened at the time.
You see, the only bad performance Holy Bull turned in from March to the end of 1994 was his Kentucky Derby when he finished 12th of 14 as the 2-1 betting favorite.
After the debacle, Holy Bull went on to win five straight graded stakes including the prestigious Met Mile against older horses and the Travers Stakes at the Kentucky Derby distance, en route to being named Horse of the Year.
So what happened to Holy Bull? Why did he run so poorly in the one race every owner, trainer and jockey desperately wants to win?
While no one is 100 percent sure, I saw his Derby week workout on the Churchill Downs racing strip. Along with a trio of Churchill clockers, we saw enough to instantly eliminate Holy Bull as a potential Derby winner.
The reason was this: Holy Bull was huffing and puffing after he finished a moderately clocked 6-furlong workout five days before the race. "That shouldn't be for a horse supposedly fit and ready to run in the Kentucky Derby," one of the clockers said, matching exactly what we all were thinking.
Either Holy Bull did not like the Churchill surface, or something was physically wrong with him -- something that obviously would be cured quickly for his next start in the Met Mile.
The clockers and I were so convinced that the exceedingly popular Holy Bull would fail to deliver a good performance in the '94 Derby, that I wrote the following lede line to my Derby preview story:
"If the betting favorite Holy Bull wins the 1994 Kentucky Derby, flying saucers will land in the Churchill Downs' infield."
A lot of people lost a lot of money on Holy Bull in that Derby, but no Martians appeared anywhere in sight.