LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Lil E. Tee, who upset heavily favored Arazi to win the 1992 Kentucky Derby, has died. He was 20.
The horse was euthanized at Old Frankfort Stud on March 18. Farm owner Jim Plemmons said the horse fell ill last month following an operation to repair an obstructed bowel and struggled to recover.
"He was losing his equilibrium and we didn't want him to suffer," Plemmons said. "Up to that point he had been fabulous. He looked like he was 10 years old."
The chestnut colt's career nearly ended before it began after Lil E. Tee underwent lifesaving stomach surgery as a yearling, dimming his racing prospects.
W. Cal Partee took a chance, purchasing the colt after he won his maiden race and sending him to trainer Lynn Whiting at Churchill Downs. Lil E. Tee thrived under Whiting, winning the Jim Beam Stakes and finishing second in the Arkansas Derby to earn a spot in the run for the roses.
"He just had that look about him," Whiting said. "People thought because of his name that he was diminutive in stature. But he was a lot of horse. ... We thought he could be anything."
Not many others did.
Lil E. Tee, like the rest of the Derby field, spent the week leading up to the race as a mere afterthought behind European star Arazi. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner the previous October entered the Derby as the prohibitive favorite while Lil E. Tee went off at modest 17-1 odds starting from the 10th post.
Jockey Pat Day tucked Lil E. Tee behind Arazi around the far turn, though Day figured his best bet was to simply hit the board.
"When [Arazi] went by me, I thought 'Well we're running for second money," Day said.
Lil E. Tee, the son of 1984 Derby third-place finisher At The Threshold, had other ideas. He caught the fading Arazi early in the stretch then turned his attention to leaders Casual Lies and Dance Floor.
"I felt I had a pretty good response and went to looking down the racetrack and saw that we were catching up," Day said.
Giving Lil E. Tee -- who had a tendency to loaf once he got the lead -- stern urging through the stretch, Day roared past the front-runners to win by a length for the only Derby victory of his Hall of Fame career.
"Realistically speaking, I've went into the [Derby] with more confidence on other mounts, like Easy Goer in '89," Day said. "I'd been fortunate enough to run the race on a favorite. ... But I believed if we'd get some breaks in the race or at least didn't have any bad luck, we'd be in the thick of it."
Respect, even in victory, proved to be hard to come by. Lil E. Tee's winning time of 2:03 over a fast track was considered a little too slow for the expert's liking and most of the aftermath was spent wondering what went wrong with Arazi, who faded to eighth.
"In the aftermath I think everybody kind of had the wind taken out of their sails because Arazi had performed so poorly," Day said. "He continued to get a lot of ink in defeat."
Added Plemmons: "He never got credit for beating Arazi. It was the race that Arazi lost."
Lil E. Tee's bid for a Triple Crown ended with a fifth-place finish in the Preakness. He skipped the Belmont due to a lung infection and a leg injury later ended his season. He returned as a 4-year-old to win the Razorback Handicap before retiring with seven wins in 13 career starts.
He spent his stud career at Old Frankfort Stud, where his progeny included Oak Tree Derby winner Mula Gula. Lil E. Tee remained active throughout his career, producing a live foal last month.
Day last saw Lil E. Tee about a year ago, and the horse still had the playful nature that endeared him to Day when they first met 18 years ago.
"He was a big showman," Day said. "He was proud of himself. He carried himself well and he loved to be around the cameras. He loved the activity."