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The Kentucky Derby is without question America's greatest horse race. Its rich history spans 133 years, from its inaugural running in 1875 to the triumph of Barbaro one year ago. The many great horses and horsemen who have participated and won over the years have contributed to the race's incredible lore. However, in the world of sports it is often the upsets and not the likely winners that make for more interesting reading. Events such as Tiger Woods failing to make the cut at the U.S. Open, the Boston Red Sox finally breaking the curse of the Bambino, the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Winter Olympics, we remember these as the shocking results they were. In horse racing, the biggest upset of all was when a horse by the same name handed Man O'War his one and only defeat. In their latest book, Greatest Kentucky Derby Upsets, a team of Blood-Horse writers write about twelve such horses, unlikely winners that defied their longshot odds to wear the garland of roses.
The Kentucky Derby is the perfect race for upsets. With media attention all over the contenders for months in advance, the horses and their connections are under the microscope and are overanalyzed and then, sure enough, one or several are over hyped and bet down by the public on race day. But when you put as many as twenty in the starting gate and send them around the tight turns of Churchill Downs over a distance they had never run before, many things can go wrong. Each upset is given its own chapter, discussing how that horse got to the races, some information about his or her connections, and a run-down of the prep races used by the subject horse and by the Derby favorite. The Derby running itself is covered in detail, with descriptions of the running, and what happened with the horse after, including Preakness and Belmont starts and stud career, if any.
Rather than attempt to rank the upsets, the chapters are in chronological order, starting with 1904 winner Elwood, the longest shot on the board but in a field of just five, all the way to Giacomo in 2005 who scored from well off the pace to beat 19 others at 50-1 odds. The editors did not merely choose those who won at the longest odds, although the longest shot to win, Donerail in 1913, was included. Generally, they defined upsets by the fact that the favorite lost, for any number of reasons, as opposed to a longshot horse suddenly reversing form at just the right time. Iron Liege capitalized on Bill Shoemaker's miscue on Gallant Man, when the great jockey misjudged the finish pole and stood up in the irons at the 1/16, while Lil E. Tee's Derby happened to coincide with Arazi, who finished 8th as the 9-10 favorite despite poor conditioning over the winter.
Those who enjoy reading about the Kentucky Derby's rich history will enjoy this worthwhile addition to their personal libraries. It is a compact, easy to read work that demonstrates part of why the Derby is so special. It is a difficult race to win, where any one of 20 horses can step up on the first Saturday in May. This book pays tribute to some of racing's biggest underdogs and improbable heroes.
Greatest Kentucky Derby Upsets has a list price of $24.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $16.47 and Exclusively Equine.
If you like this book, you may be interested in the companion to it published in 2005, The 10 Best Kentucky Derbies, also by Staff and Correspondents of the Blood-Horse.
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