LOUISVILLE — As that rare sporting event aged enough to let people banter about how something hasn’t happened in 136 years, the 144th Kentucky Derby has people bantering about something that hasn’t happened in 136 years.
Two of the top three favorites, Justify and Magnum Moon, both 3 years old as the Derby forever insists, did not race while 2, a detail that clearly has caused them such ostracism among peers that they’ve had to run away from those peers. (Both are undefeated.) That, in turn, has unearthed Apollo, a horse departed for 131 years, yet whose name has turned up in Churchill Downs chitchat more than many a winner in any a century. Apollo won the 1882 Kentucky Derby after not having raced at 2, something unachieved since. He did not trend on Twitter.
That, in turn, can loose a whole bale of details, such as that the 1882 Kentucky Derby happened on the third Tuesday of May rather than the first Saturday; that the starter used a kettle drum; that one ham in the refreshment stand yielded 2,000 sandwiches, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal; and that one of the 14 horses wound up identified as “the Pat Malloy colt.” It also does the important work of reminding that the Derby used to specialize in African American jockeys before the sport heinously and inanely drove them away.
One such name: Babe Hurd.
“Hurd’s birth name may be lost to history, but his equestrian skills survive,” reads the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, edited by Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel and John A. Hardin. On May 16, 1882, Hurd, then 15, after first racing at 13 for a former Maryland governor, Oden Bowie, became one of 11 African American jockeys to win 15 Kentucky Derbies between 1875 and 1902.
The fourteen blanketed beauties soberly followed their trainers in the cooling ground, while a circle of admiring, but not speaking, acquaintances, stood by and wondered who was the chosen one . . .
So went the description in the Louisville Courier-Journal of Wednesday, May 17, 1882, if only after it carefully detailed the smaller races that had preceded the Derby, thus burying the lead.
After two false starts, President Clarke gave the signal, and, as the red flag waved approval, Harry Gilmore shot to the front as if propelled from a string, Babcock second, the Pat Malloy colt third, Robert Bruce fourth, the others together and well up . . .
Back then, with the world in less of a hurry, they ran it at a mile and a half instead of the current mile and a quarter, and the account didn’t mention the name of the 10-1 shot Apollo until well into its editorial fray.
In this order they blotted out the half mile, and crossed the string with Babcock third, Runnymede fourth, Apollo fifth, Highflyer sixth, the others a jumble of jockeys, unplaced and struggling hard, the Grand Stand propelling a satisfied chorus of cheers, which died at their heels as they rounded up the quarter stretch.
Some foreshadowing came next.
Hurd sat astride of Apollo confident and waiting, saving his horse for the punishing finish. He was going carefully at sixth, and to the uninitiated looked out of the race, but his rider’s judgment was rare, and the fruition came in good time.
Finally . . .
The tense silence of 15,000 people was vocal now, as the white and purple of Apollo were in and out between the orange, the blue, the red, the green and the maroon of his struggling contemporaries, and flashed defiance in the faces of eleven of the choicest colts in all the land.
The official race summary credited Apollo, a gelding, with a “cyclonic rush.” As Bill Mooney wrote in the Daily Racing Form in 2013, Apollo would run nine times in a 40-day span at age 4, and would wind up being given away to the owner’s friend who owned a farm in South Carolina. The horse died of lockjaw in November 1887.
The Courier-Journal called Apollo “a large, handsome chestnut colt of impressive appearance and good action,” outlined his impressive relatives and concluded: “Coming from such a family, it seems a little strange that he did not as a youngster attract more attention from horsemen, since at the great thoroughbred sales the colts whose brothers or sisters have distinguished themselves upon the turf have brought good prices.”
Much further into history in so many ways, Magnum Moon began racing Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, where he won by 4½ lengths over 10 rivals at six furlongs at Gulfstream Park near Miami. Justify began on Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. He won by 9½ lengths over four rivals at seven furlongs at Santa Anita near Los Angeles. Both their star trainers, Todd Pletcher of Magnum Moon and Bob Baffert of Justify, are typically, predictably undaunted. Baffert already had Bodemeister, unraced at 2, finish second in 2012.
Elliott Walden, who runs WinStar Farm in Kentucky after training Victory Gallop to a Triple Crown-ruining victory in the Belmont Stakes 20 years ago, likened it to the bygone chatter about the Dosage Index, that computation related to horse lineage which swelled as a topic in the 1990s before receding.
“Everybody talked about it and talked about it until you don’t need to talk about it anymore,” Walden said. In the interest of ceasing the talk, Magnum Moon will have the 25-year-old Panama-born jockey Luis Saez, as in all four of his previous wins, and Justify will have the 52-year-old New Mexico-born jockey Mike Smith, as with the last two of his three previous wins.
Apollo had Hurd, who received $25 for the victory. Various sources, including the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, have reported that trainer Green B. Morris said to Hurd at dismount, “My boy, you shall never want for a dollar as long as you live.”
He did end up wanting, of course, becoming a steeplechase rider and a trainer. Various records had him living in Chicago and St. Louis, then training in Kentucky, where he died of heart problems at a horse farm in the town of Paris at age 61 in December 1928. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia found records indicating that the burial had occurred in Chicago.
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