The best horses to lose the Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: Robert Criscola

April 25th, 2021

Winning the Kentucky Derby is the easiest way to become a name worth remembering in thoroughbred racing. It instantly adds credibility to a horse’s résumé, as the race is so prestigious and extraordinarily difficult to win. But for these five horses, they made their names known in spite of their shortcomings in the “Run for the Roses.”

Here are the five greatest horses to lose the Kentucky Derby.

5. Holy Bull (1994)

Fate seemed to conspire against the beloved Holy Bull and his connections in the 1994 Kentucky Derby, but that hasn’t stopped him from being recognized as one of the greatest horses of the 90s, if not all-time.

Whether Holy Bull was tampered with – as trainer Jimmy Croll has alleged – or simply the victim of bad racing luck after getting “wiped out” at both the break and the first turn, he finished off the board as the betting favorite. It would be one of just three times in a 16-race career that Holy Bull did not win.

The gray son of Great Above would still put together a Horse of the Year campaign in 1994, taking the Florida Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Met Mile, Haskell Invitational, Travers Stakes and Woodward Stakes.

4. Damascus (1967)

Damascus’ 1967 season is one of the greatest campaigns in horse racing history, as he won the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Travers, Wood Memorial, and Dwyer Stakes for three-year-olds, as well as the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Woodward while facing older horses.

The 1967 Woodward is often referred to as “The Race of the Century,” as Damascus took on and beat champion older foes Buckpasser and Dr. Fager. He was deservedly awarded champion three-year-old and Horse of the Year for his accomplishments.

But one thing Damascus did not do in 1967 was win the Kentucky Derby. He was sent off at 3-5 under Hall of Fame rider Bill Shoemaker, but he sat close to a blistering pace, which enabled longshot Proud Clarion to close from well back for the victory.

3. Easy Goer (1989)

The rivalry between New York’s Easy Goer and California’s Sunday Silence is one of the greatest in horse racing history. The latter is often regarded as the better of the two, especially since he won the Kentucky Derby while Easy Goer had to settle for second, but the debate still rages on.

However, there is little debate regarding the greatness of Easy Goer despite his loss in the Kentucky Derby. He compiled a 14-5-1 record from 20 starts, taking the Champagne Stakes, Gotham Stakes, Swale Stakes, Wood Memorial, Travers, Whitney Stakes, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

He also delivered one of the great all-time performances in the history of the Belmont Stakes, denying Sunday Silence the Triple Crown.

2. Native Dancer (1953)

Native Dancer – known as the Gray Ghost – has but one blemish in an otherwise perfect 22-race career; he did not win the Kentucky Derby.

The son of Polynesian won nine times at two, highlighted by a score in Saratoga’s Hopeful Stakes. He won the Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial to prepare for the “Run for the Roses,” making him the odds-on favorite for the biggest race of them all.

Native Dancer encountered some traffic trouble and raced wide in the Derby while longshot Dark Star had an almost perfect frontrunning trip. In the end, Native Dancer came up short by just a head despite a bold late rally in the Churchill Downs homestretch.

The Gray Ghost would go on to win the Preakness, Belmont and Travers, among other races, before retiring at age four.

1. Forego (1973)

The term “warhorse” is often overused, but Forego fit the bill for such an honor.

The son of Forli put together one of the most impressive résumés in the history of the game, winning Horse of the Year three straight times from 1974 to 1976. He practically owned the Woodward in his illustrious 57-race career, winning the event four times. He also took the Brooklyn Handicap three times, and the Carter Handicap and Met Mile twice each.

“The Mighty Forego” won at distances ranging from seven furlongs to two miles, often carrying imposts in excess of 130 pounds.

While his reputation as a handicap horse draws few parallels, his three-year-old season was surprisingly poor. Forego didn’t win any Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby included. However, he had the misfortune of being born the same year as Secretariat. Forego finished fourth in the 1973 “Run for the Roses,” 11 lengths behind "Big Red."