LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDKY) — The lore and pageantry of the Kentucky Derby have been etched in racing history since its inaugural running in 1875, but some winners of “The Run for the Roses” stand apart.
Long-shot winners like Rich Strike in 2022 and blazing-fast times like those achieved by Secretariat in 1973 have cemented the race as one of the most memorable sporting events each year.
Some names have become synonymous with Churchill Downs over the 148 years of The Derby. Feel free to sip a mint julep as we look back at the greatest Kentucky Derby-winning horses.
5. Whirlaway (1941)
Whirlaway was bred at Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. The thoroughbred was known as “Mr. Longtail” due to his abnormally long tail that would blow far behind him while he was racing.
Trainer Ben Jones told jockey Eddie Arcaro to ride the horse around 10 feet off the inner rail. Arcaro was able to keep Whirlaway on a straight path, and the horse won the 1941 Kentucky Derby by a record 8 lengths.
Whirlaway went on to win the Triple Crown and is also the only horse to win the Travers Stakes-oriented Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing, meaning the horse captured the four oldest races for racehorses in their prime.
4. Affirmed (1978)
Affirmed was the 11th winner of the Triple Crown and the last to do so for 37 years.
Bred in Marion County, Florida, Affirmed is famous for his rivalry with fellow legendary horse Alydar.
Affirmed and Alydar would square off again in the 1978 Kentucky Derby, with Alydar the betting favorite at 6-5.
In the Derby, Alydar stayed in the back while Affirmed held in third for the early parts of the race, trailing the undefeated Sensitive Prince before taking the lead at the second turn.
On the far turn, Affirmed made his move and began to pull away while Alydar made a charge from the back. Affirmed wound up holding off Alydar, winning by 1.5 lengths in a time of 2:01.2.
Affirmed won the coveted Horse of the Year award in both 1978 and 1979.
3. American Pharoah (2015)
No list would be complete without the thoroughbred that broke the 37-year skid between Triple Crown winners.
American Pharoah became the 12th horse in history, and the first since Affirmed in 1978, to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in the same year.
Ridden by jockey Victor Espinosa, American Pharoah was the betting favorite coming into the Derby.
Espinosa positioned the horse in third place early, alongside Dortmund and Firing Line. The three horses stayed ahead of the rest of the pack for the remainder of the race.
On the final stretch, American Pharoah made his move on the outside of the pack and surged into the lead, winning the 2015 Kentucky Derby with a time of 2:03.02.
American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup leg of the Grand Slam of Thoroughbred Racing, becoming the only horse to do so.
2. Seattle Slew (1977)
Seattle Slew was foaled in 1974 in Lexington and was the main cause of “Slewmania.”
He is one of only two horses to have won the Triple Crown while being undefeated in any previous race, with the other being 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, who is a direct descendant of Seattle Slew.
Joe Hirsch, a contributor for the Daily Racing Form, wrote, “Every time he ran he was an odds-on favorite, and the response to his presence on the racetrack, either for a morning workout or a major race, was electric. ‘Slewmania’ was a virulent and widespread condition.”
Coming into the Derby, Seattle Slew was a 1-2 betting favorite, but some in the betting community felt he was vulnerable at a distance of 1.25 miles.
The 1977 Kentucky Derby was one for the ages. Jockey Jean Cruguet had his work cut out for him as Seattle Slew had a bumpy start and found himself at the back of the pack. He reacted by charging through the field and bumping several other horses out of the way in the process, working his way into second place.
At one point, Cruguet had to get Seattle Slew to relax as the horse grew agitated and wanted to challenge the horse in first, For the Moment.
For the Moment, a strong contender, held a lead of around a length going into the final turn before Seattle Slew pulled away by four lengths and coasted to a 1.75-length win with a time of 2:02.2.
He went on to win the Triple Crown, becoming the 10th horse ever to do so.
Seattle Slew’s pedigree is as impressive as his 14-2 racing career. His descendants include Swale and California Chrome, who both won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown, along with Triple Crown winner Justified.
Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 after winning the Belmont Stakes by an “unbelievable” 31 lengths.
Sired by Bold Ruler, a sprinting horse known for his impressive top speed but lack of endurance, similar concerns were expressed about Secretariat going into his racing career.
The story of Secretariat is the stuff of legend. Forty-five minutes after being born, the horse was standing — and another 30 minutes later it was nursing.
Howard Gentry, the manager of Meadow Stud Farm, the birthplace of Secretariat, said, “He was as perfect a foal that I ever delivered” when talking about Secretariat, who was then-known as Big Red.
Ahead of the Derby, Secretariat and Angle Light were the betting favorites at 3-2, while Secretariat’s rival, Sham, was second at 5-2.
Chaos ensued out the gate as Twice a Prince reared in his stall and hit the horse next to him, which caused Sham to hit his head on the gate, loosening two of his teeth. Secretariat avoided all of the chaos by breaking last and cutting over to the rail.
On the way to his record-shattering winning time of 1:59.4, Secretariat ran each quarter-mile faster than the prior, accelerating from 0:25.2 to 0:23 in the final quarter-mile of the race.
Secretariat became the only horse to ever run the Derby in under two minutes, a record that would stand until Monarchos ran the second-fastest time ever in 2001.
Sports writer Mike Sullivan said: “I was at Secretariat’s Derby, in ’73 … That was … just beauty, you know? He started in last place, which he tended to do. I was covering the second-place horse, which wound up being Sham. It looked like Sham’s race going into the last turn, I think. The thing you have to understand is that Sham was fast, a beautiful horse. He would have had the Triple Crown in another year. And it just didn’t seem like there could be anything faster than that. Everybody was watching him. It was over, more or less. And all of a sudden there was this, like, just a disruption in the corner of your eye, in your peripheral vision. And then before you could make out what it was, here Secretariat came. And then Secretariat had passed him. No one had ever seen anything run like that — a lot of the old guys said the same thing. It was like he was some other animal out there.”
During his Triple Crown campaign, Secretariat set track records at each leg along the way.
To this day, Secretariat still holds records for the fastest recorded times at each leg of the Triple Crown.