• The Greatest Kentucky Derby Champions

    POSTED Jan 31, 2014
    In my opinion, the most fascinating thing about sports has nothing to do with the competition or the venue. Sure, those who were in the stands when Babe Ruth allegedly “called his shot” witnessed a historic moment.

    The lucky fans that watched Wilt Chamberlain pour in 100 points in an NBA game against the New York Knicks (why am I not surprised the Knicks were involved?) on March 2, 1962, saw a basketball legend at his very best.

    But the thrill of sports — at least to me — is not watching a Hall-of-Famer go off on a guy with a career scoring average of 7.2 points per game (PPG), like Darrall Imhoff, who started at center for the Knicks that historic night. To me, the thrill of sports is debating the answer to a simple question: “what if?”

    Sid Luckman
    What if Chamberlain played a one-on-one game of hoops with Michael Jordan? What if Ruth was stared down by Clayton Kershaw with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning? What if Sid Luckman, the man who pioneered the position of quarterback, faced off with Peyton Manning, the guy who tied Luckman (and others) with seven touchdown passes in a single game? 

    NOTE: A Manning-Luckman showdown would have particular appeal to me because Luckman also played defensive back. (No word on whether he gave Sammy Baugh the choke sign or called  Charley Malone  a “mediocre receiver” after the Chicago Bears pounded the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the 1940 NFL title game).

    My point here is that the history of sports is what makes them so compelling. After all, without the context that history provides, there can be no greatness. Scoring 100 points in an NBA game is only noteworthy because no one — except Chamberlain — has ever done it.

    It was with this in mind that I decided to peruse my database of Kentucky Derby results and present what I believe are the top three greatest performances in Derby history.

    Now, anybody who has delved into the history of sports knows that it is not easy to determine greatness by statistics alone.

    Things change.

    For example, during the 1961-62 season, in which Chamberlain averaged 50.4 PPG, the typical NBA team took 107.7 shots per contest. By the time Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls to their last title in 1998, teams were attempting just 79.7 shots per game.

    Likewise, the racing strip at Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby, has changed over the years — making straight time comparisons fruitless. However, as many regular readers know, I have developed my own pace figures, which measure relative speed, so I will be relying heavily on them to make my assessments.

    Hence, a quick tutorial is in order:

    Early Speed Ration (ESR): A measurement of a horse’s early energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The lower the figure, the greater the horse’s early exertion in that event.

    -15= Demanding.
    -10= Brisk.
      -5= Moderate.
       0= Soft.

    Late Speed Ration (LSR): A measurement of a horse’s late energy expenditure in relation to the total race requirements. The higher the figure, the greater the horse’s late exertion in that event. Because late speed is calculated at a time when a horse is being asked for his/her maximum effort, LSRs can be a great indication of form as well.

       0= Excellent.
      -5= Good.
    -10= Fair.
    -15= Poor.

    Pace Profile: A simple comparison between a horse’s LSR and the ESR of the race in which it was earned. Positive profiles are greatly desired.

    Note: ESRs and LSRs recorded on turf or all-weather surfaces tend to vary by 5-10 points from those garnered on dirt tracks.

    5. NORTHERN DANCER (1964)

    In addition to being one of the most influential sires in history, Northern Dancer was a heckuva racehorse. The zero late speed ration he earned in the 1964 Run for the Roses ranks eighth all time and his 2:00 clocking wasn’t surpassed until Secretariat in 1973.

    4. MAJESTIC PRINCE (1969)

    Although Majestic Prince’s +1 LSR was fourth-best in Derby history, he is probably best known for a race he didn’t win — the Belmont Stakes.

    Fearing that “Prince” was injured after he bore out in the stretch of the Preakness, the colt’s trainer Johnny Longden initially decided not to ship to New York. However, after much public pressure — some coming from the horse’s owner Frank McMahon — Longden relented and Majestic Prince finished a badly-beaten second to eventual three-year-old champ Arts and Letters.

    Majestic Prince never raced again.

    3. OLD ROSEBUD (1914)

    Old Rosebud’s zero LSR ranks as the fifth-highest in Kentucky Derby history and the best ever for a wire-to-wire winner of America’s most prestigious horse race. What’s more his final time of 2:03 2/5 set a Derby record that would stand for 16 years.

    2. WHIRLAWAY (1941)

    Whirlaway had great timing. Not only did he possess a potent late kick, but he knew when to raise his game — which he did on the first Saturday in May of 1941. Not only did Whirlaway win the Derby by eight lengths that day, he also recorded a +1 LSR and set a new track record (2:01-2/5) that wasn’t broken until 1957.

    1. SECRETARIAT (1973)

    No horse — past, present and probably future — ever had the kind of spring that Secretariat had in 1973. After getting upset by stable mate Angle Light in the Wood Memorial, “Big Red” produced a series of efforts that culminated with a Triple Crown, an Eclipse award for Horse of the Year and a new title: legend.

    Secretariat’s 1:59-2/5 clocking remains a Kentucky Derby record and his +3 LSR is tied with His Eminence (1901) for the best ever.

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