If you ask any horse racing fan, they can tell you the moment that solidified their love of the sport. Perhaps it’s Secretariat “moving like a tremendous machine” in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Maybe it’s catching a day of racing with a relative when they were kids. It could even be a book or a movie that captured their imagination. For me, that moment was the 1988 Kentucky Derby and the beautiful roan filly that brought home the roses that day.
I had discovered the sport only a few months before that so this was my first Kentucky Derby to watch on television. I would wait nearly twenty years before I got to see the spectacle in person, but I relished seeing it on television, hearing the stories of the horses and their human connections, and then watching the race unfold from gate to wire before my eyes. I met personalities that would come to mark my early years with racing: Jim McKay, Charlsie Cantey, and Dave Johnson, their faces and voices part of this memory. I learned about horses that still bring back the same feelings that other childhood memories do: Forty Niner, Risen Star, Seeking the Gold, and Winning Colors. I knew of the Triple Crown, but I did not yet know the impact it would have on my life.
I did not watch any of the prep races that year so I missed her dominating performance in the Santa Anita Derby. My nascent awareness of the sport had not yet clued me into personalities like the super trainer D. Wayne Lukas. But Winning Colors was a filly and she was roan/gray, perhaps the reason why I still have a soft spot for horses of that color. I remember wanting her to win, willing her to come home in front of the boys and make history like Regret and Genuine Risk. I liked her silks, but it didn’t realize that Gene Klein also had owned the San Diego Chargers (and Lady’s Secret!). She caught my eye and thus my young heart rooted for the filly as she challenged the boys for one of the biggest prizes in racing.
As I watch the replay of her Kentucky Derby now, I see her tendency to want to run on the lead, the speed she possessed, and the absolute tenacity she needed to hang on to that lead during the onslaught of closers over that last furlong. Her Derby Day was sunny and dry, a stark contrast with the downpours and darkened skies over Justify’s win thirty years later. I remember how she powered through those furlongs, showing exceptional form, somehow possessing something still rare in racing: the power to beat the boys. I see her stride shorten as Forty Niner’s built the momentum necessary to challenge her and then I am reminded of why I echoed that rivalry in the novel about a female jockey I wrote that next year. The young faces of Gary Stevens and Chris Antley and the more experienced Willie Shoemaker and Angel Cordero, Jr. remind me of the young girl who sat excitedly in front of the television on that May day, shooing away anyone that might want to change the station. I like to think that I am still that excited girl watching the races with rapture, though I’m not that young anymore and that Derby is now three decades ago rather than just yesterday.
Winning Colors has been gone for a decade now, though Forty Niner is still alive and well in Japan. Risen Star and Seeking the Gold are also both gone, and multiple generations of horses separate Justify and Good Magic from these champions. Yet, thanks to the magic of YouTube, I can revisit these happy memories whenever I like and feel the lump in my throat as the filly holds off the boys one more time.
Before you go, I noted a connection between the 1988 Kentucky Derby and Sir Barton: Private Terms, owned by Stuart Janney, Jr., finished ninth in the race. Stuart Janney, Jr.’s father was Stuart Janney, Sr., a lawyer who helped write the bill that created the Maryland Racing Commission, which you will read more about in Sir Barton and the Making of the Triple Crown.