Horses like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Citation go down in history for winning the Kentucky Derby. You might also be interested in the stories of some horses that didn't win.
1. Dancer's Image 1968
The only Kentucky Derby winner ever disqualified after the race was over was Dancer's Image in 1968. The horse came from behind (last place, in fact) and crossed the line 1.5 lengths ahead of Forward Pass. Then traces of phenylbutazone were found in the post-race urine test. Drug tests were fairly new in horse racing at the time. Phenylbutazone is a pain killer that relieves inflammation of joints. Some tracks allowed it at the time, but not Churchill Downs in 1968. However, the drug was legal in the Derby in 1967 and 1969. Veterinarian Dr. Alex Harthill prescribed the drug for Dancer's Image the previous weekend, considering it would be out of the horse's system by Derby day. Harthill had previous troubles over racehorses and drugs. There was also suspicion that Dancer's Image was set up as retribution for owner Peter Fuller's contribution of an earlier race's winnings to Coretta Scott King.
2. Native Dancer 1953
Native Dancer was sire to Dancer's Image, and was named Horse of the Year in 1952 and 1954. They called him the Gray Ghost. Going into the 1953 Kentucky Derby, he was far and away the favorite, with the shortest odds in Derby history. But he was bumped twice during the race, and came in second to long shot Dark Star by a nose. It was the only race Native Dance ever lost. You can relive the 1953 Derby in this video.
3. Gallant Man 1957
Gallant Man was in the lead at the 1957 Kentucky Derby when legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker made the blunder of his life. Shoemaker misjudged where the finish line stood and stood up in the stirrups to celebrate victory -before the race was over! Iron Liege took the lead and won by a nose. Gallant Man never won a championship, but raced well, beating Bold Ruler and Round Table (both eventual Horse of the Year winners) in different races.
4. Display 1926
Display was a difficult racehorse. Known as The Iron Horse, assistant starters dreaded dealing with him. Display did not want to line up at the post, ever. He once led a starter around for 15 minutes before he would enter the gate! But once the pistol sounded, he was a runner -sometimes. He finished tenth in the 1926 Kentucky Derby, then went on the win the Preakness Stakes. Display was more successful as a stud, siring 1935 Horse of the Year Discovery. His descendants include Native Dancer, Bold Ruler, and other champions.
5. Eight Belles 2008
The saddest story from the Kentucky Derby is that of Eight Belles. The filly ran the race of her life in 2008, coming in second to Big Brown. Then while pulling up after the race, both her front ankles broke. Unable to be moved, Eight Belles was put down on the spot, to the horror of the Derby day crowd.
There is no turning away from this fact: Eight Belles killed herself finishing second. She ran with the heart of a locomotive, on champagne-glass ankles for the pleasure of the crowd, the sheiks, oilmen, entrepreneurs, old money from the thousand-acre farms, the handicappers, men in bad sport coats with crumpled sheets full of betting hieroglyphics, the julep-swillers and the ladies in hats the size of boats, and the rest of the people who make up thoroughbred racing. There was no mistaking this fact, too, as she made her stretch run, and the apologists will use it to defend the sport in the coming days: She ran to please herself.
I used the word "non-winners" in the title because no horse who qualifies to run in the Kentucky Derby is a loser. The 136th annual Run for the Roses is this Saturday in Louisville.