Four Derby winners have been born in Virginia, and only Florida with six homegrown Derby winners has a better record. But, other Virginians have been to the winners circle at Churchill Downs or been affiliated with the horses that find their way there.
As previously mentioned here on more than one occasion, Quality Road (prior to his foot problem and withdrawal from the race) was seeking to become the fifth Virginia-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
That stellar group includes Triple Crown winner Secretariat (1973), Pleasant Colony (Derby and Preakness 1981), Sea Hero (1993) and Reigh Count (1928), but it leaves out other important Derby winners with Virginia connections.
But, the trail from Commonwealth to Commonwealth for the most famous horse race in America starts in 1918 when Kentucky-bred Exterminator (aka Old Bones) won the Derby for Virginian Willis Sharpe Kilmer.
Before his sophomore campaign, Kilmer’s future Hall of Fame trainer Henry McDaniel purchased a “work horse” for his Derby hopeful Sun Briar. McDaniel bought Old Bones and two other fillies in a package for $9,000, a huge price for the times and well outside Kilmer’s $700 budget.
As a gelding, Exterminator went on to compete in 99 races, winning 50, finishing second and third, 17 times each. His lifetime earnings amounted to $252,996 (about $3.6 million in current dollars).
Kilmer would find his way back to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May with Virginia-bred Reigh Count who was born in the Shenandoah Valley somewhere near New Market, VA.
In 1934, Isabel Dodge Sloan of Brookmeade Farm in Upperville won the Derby with the New Jersey-bred Cavalcade. Brookmeade is now Joe Allbritton’s Lazy Lane Farm which produced 1991 Preakness winner Hansel, but before Sloan’s tenure at the Fauquier County nursery ended, she bred Belmont winner and Horse of the Year Sword Dancer who is happily ensconced in the Virginia Racing Hall of Fame.
Fast forward 32 years to 1966, when Dr. Frank O’Keefe of Pine Brook Farm bred the Kentucky Derby winner. For reasons unknown, O’Keefe decided to foal his mare Sweep in Maryland. She crossed the Potomac and delivered a colt by Native Dancer who would be named Kauai King. In addition to the Derby, Kauai King would also win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.
Six year’s later the world’s Kentucky Derby focus landed on Virginia and it was there for two straight years. Back-to-back Derby winner’s are rare for owner’s and it has only happened a two other times in the history of the race. On three occasions, the double involved future Triple Crown winners.
Virginia’s The Meadow Stud was represented in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle in 1972 by Kentucky-bred Riva Ridge and again in 1973 by Virginia-bred Secretariat. Only two others have won back-to-back Derbies. Calumet Farm in Lexington, KY has done it twice with Ponder in 1948 and Triple Crown winner Citation in 1949 and Iron Liege in 1957 and Tim Tam in 1958. E.R. Bradley won consecutive renewals of the Kentucky Derby 1931 with Twenty Grand and 1932 with Gallant Fox. Secretariat, Citation and Gallant Fox were all Triple Crown winners.
In 1980, Bert and Diana Firestone of Catoctin Farm in Waterford, VA captured the Derby and the hearts of American’s horse racing fans when their Kentucky-bred filly Genuine Risk became just the second girl to win the roses breaking a 65 year distaff drought. A $32,000 yearling, Genuine Risk would lose a controversial Preakness to Codex and finish second in the Belmont to eventual champion Temperence Hill.
One year after Genuine Risk’s popular victory, Thomas Mellon Evans’ Virginia-bred Pleasant Colony and his boisterous and colorful trainer Johnny Campo would capture the Derby and the Preakness only to lose the Belmont at the hands of Summing.
In 1993, Sea Hero gave Virginia breeder Paul Mellon the victory in the last major race unconquered by Mellon’s Rokeby Stables. The Upperville Virginia multi-millionaire, philanthropist and horsemen had won most of the major races in America including the Belmont Stakes as well as some important races in England and France.
The Polish Navy colt’s win in the Derby made owner-breeder Mellon the only person to ever win the Kentucky Derby, the Epsom Derby, and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, having captured the latter two with Mill Reef in 1971. He still posthumously holds that record.
In 1994, a horse named Go For Gin won the Kentucky Derby and his Virginia connection is an ironic one. A Kentucky-bred, Go For Gin was purchased by Virginians Anne and Richard J.M. (Dick) Poulson of Hare Forest Farm in Orange, VA.
The purchase ticket was signed by John Finney, the long-time president of the Fasig-Tipton auction company that conducts the famous Saratoga yearling sales. Finney picked out the colt at the Keeneland November Mixed Sale in Lexington, KY for a final bid of $32,000. The Poulsons then entered the colt in the Saratoga Select Yearling Sale the next August where he was purchased for $150,000 – a tidy gross profit of $118,000 in a little over eight months time.
The Poulson have never voiced publicly any regret about having sold the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, and recently Anne Polsoun said, “My husband put it perfectly when it happened saying ‘We are commercial breeders and we want to be known for the horses we sell not the ones we keep.’ That’s it in a nutshell.” She pointed out, rightfully so, that the horse’s modest pedigree made his resale price and their subsequent profit a “home run” in terms of financial success.
And the name – Go For Gin?