Our favorite renewals of the Kentucky Derby

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TwinSpires Staff

April 22nd, 2015

This week, we're strolling down memory lane to revisit several Kentucky Derbies that hold special personal meaning for us. Our third "team blog" looks back at our favorite Kentucky Derby renewals.

Kellie Reilly: Swale was just my type of horse. Although I was a neophyte when it came to pedigrees, I knew enough at the age of 12 to salivate over his: by a Triple Crown hero in Seattle Slew, with *Forli for a broodmare sire, Double Jay as his second dam's sire, and a further family with the exotic appeal of the asterisk (signifying imports in the old days before country codes). And his human connections were equally appealing. Here was a homebred racing for Claiborne, the historic Paris, Kentucky, farm associated with legends I'd read about, like my favorite, Gallant Fox. Swale was trained by my favorite trainer, Woody Stephens, whom I first came to admire through his exploits in the Belmont Stakes with Conquistador Cielo (1982) and Caveat (1983). Unaware of Swale while his champion stablemate Devil's Bag carried all before him in 1983, I was smitten for good when Swale won the 1984 Florida Derby. And despite Swale's eight-length loss at odds of 1-10 in the Lexington Stakes, I still believed in him, with unflinching, unwavering loyalty. The slop was to blame for that Lexington debacle. Surely Swale would come roaring back in the Derby. But my friend Sanjay disagreed. He had entered all kinds of data into his computer, which told him that the filly Althea would win the Derby. I argued strenuously against Althea, while Sanjay dismissed Swale. For once, my opinion was validated, and the cyber oracle proved wrong. Swale readily forged ahead on the far turn and looked imperious down the stretch, while Althea faded to the rear. Swale's story ended on a gut-wrenchingly sad note, as he died suddenly only eight days after his four-length victory in the Belmont. But I'll always cherish that Derby, when Swale rewarded everyone who stuck with him faithfully.

Vance Hanson: I can't say my favorite Kentucky Derby was the easiest to watch. My parents and I had taken a day trip to visit my grandfather in western Wisconsin, and he lived off the beaten path by modern standards. Even though we were deep in the woods and a few miles from the nearest paved road, the black & white television in grandpa's living room was still able to pick up a fuzzy reception of the local ABC affiliate. Our Derby viewing was made much easier by the fact a gray Amazon named Winning Colors was hard to miss. She burst out of the gate running, just like in the Santa Anita Derby, and dared the boys to catch her. From the time she turned into the backstretch until she reached the eighth pole, it looked like it would be a runaway victory. But then the early exertion began to catch up with her as Forty Niner, the reigning juvenile champion colt, made a furious late rally. The wire came in time for Winning Colors, who joined Regret and Genuine Risk as the only filly winners of the classic, and it was the first of multiple wins in the race for Hall of Famers D. Wayne Lukas and Gary Stevens. With the exception of the Breeders' Cup Distaff that fall, Winning Colors was never really the same again. She had laid it all out on the line on the first Saturday in May, but did so against a remarkable field that also included Risen Star (who won the last two legs of the Triple Crown), Seeking the Gold, Proper Reality, and Private Terms. Even though I lost my Winning Colors-Risen Star exacta box, I recall watching and re-watching the replay I had videotaped for a long time afterwards. It was even better in color.

Jennifer Caldwell: My favorite Kentucky Derby also happens to be the first one I ever saw. Growing up I lived and breathed horses, devouring every book I could get my hands on from the library, but none more so than Walter Farley's Black Stallion series. When I first started watching the 1989 telecast of the Kentucky Derby, Easy Goer stood out with his gleaming chestnut coat and king-of-the-paddock attitude, but then I caught sight of a black colt with a beautiful white blaze on his forehead and fell in love. Seeing him prance around on the track before the race and then fly home in the stretch, weaving back and forth in front of the rest of the field, was enough to cement my devotion. To date, only Tiznow has come close to equaling Sunday Silence in my eyes.

James Scully: Since this category isn't "the most impressive Derby winner," which would've probably put Barbaro (2006) or Big Brown (2008) among the best in recent editions, I'll focus upon winning selections. I'll Have Another (2012) proved to a rewarding choice, connecting at 15-1 following victories in the Santa Anita Derby and Robert B. Lewis, but Sea Hero (1993) will always hold a special place in my heart. I didn't see him in the paddock but was at Keeneland when he finished a non-threatening fourth in the Blue Grass, and didn't have any reason to like him at the time heading into the Kentucky Derby. But then I got a close view of him on Derby week, venturing to Churchill Downs to watch morning workouts, and came away highly impressed. The imposing, muscular colt galloped around the track with his head cocked as if he might breathe fire at any moment, and I remember being captivated by his appearance. I suddenly had my Derby horse, and what turned out to be a 12-1 shot to boot, and told everyone that would listen that I liked Sea Hero. He didn't always fire, but Sea Hero was on his game Derby Day, benefiting from an adept ride from Jerry Bailey to score going away. I was able to leave Churchill Downs with a nice windfall as well as the satisfaction that comes with selecting the Derby winner.

(Sea Hero photo: Associated Press)