By Lisa Grimm, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor
The past few years have been kinder to Derby favorites than the preceding decades â€“ Big Brown, Street Sense, Smarty Jones and Fusaichi Pegasus all seemed to overcome what had seemed like a curse on favorites. Indeed, the wait for a winning favorite was becoming almost epic â€“ until Fusaichi Pegasus won in 2000, it had been 21 years since a favorite (in that case, the great Spectacular Bid) had won the blanket of roses. But while things had been looking up for favorites, the bad mojo was apparently back in action in 2009 – Mine That Bird’s upset victory was further underlined by favored Friesan Fire finishing second-to-last.
Much-hyped Point Given also finished out of the money in 2001 â€“ but he more than redeemed himself in the Preakness and Belmont. Other memorable misses by favorites include Unbridled Song’s fifth-place finish in 1996, and, just two years earlier, Holy Bull finished twelfth â€“ out of fourteen. While Holy Bull went on to demonstrate that his dull Derby performance was a fluke, Unbridled’s Song, the other grey beaten favorite, never regained his impressive pre-Derby form, which had included wins in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Wood Memorial. Seeming superhorse Arazi ended up in an eighth-place finish in 1992 â€“ despite a few useful performances thereafter in France, he never lived up to his reputation coming into the Derby. Hansel preceded Arazi as a very short-priced favorite â€“ and horseplayers would have been wise to recall his performance only a year before Arazi’s â€“ a tenth-place effort. And only a year before that, Mister Frisky, who came to the Derby on a 16-race winning streak, finished eighth as well.
Other modern favorites fared better, yet still failed to find the winner’s circle â€“ but Chief’s Crown, Easy Goer, Summer Squall, Prairie Bayou, Timber Country, Captain Bodgit, Indian Charlie and Empire Maker all managed to hit the board, giving credence to their pre-race reputations, if not earning their place in Derby history. But from the late 1920s through the late 1970s, the Derby favorite was not infrequently the winner â€“ some of the most famous names in Derby history went off as favorites during that time: Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew, Foolish Pleasure, Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Tim Tam (although Silky Sullivan went off at equal odds in his Derby â€“ and finished up the track), Needles, Citation, Count Fleet, Whirlaway, War Admiral, Gallant Fox and Black Gold. And before that, even the first filly to win, Regret, went off as the favorite â€“ as did the very first Derby winner, Aristides.
While we might attribute the more recent difficulties favorites have had in the race to large fields, it is worth noting that War Admiral’s Derby featured a 20-horse field â€“ and of course, that has not impeded some more recent favorites. While a favorite flame-out happens less frequently than folklore might lead one to believe, it’s always a possibility â€“ but on the whole, history suggests that while the favorite may not win, s/he should also not be overlooked.