1988: A Winning (Colors) Derby
Seventeen horses made up the field for the 1988 Kentucky Derby. They were the chosen few that were foaled three years earlier that stepped onto Churchill Downs to compete under the Twin Spires for the opportunity to win America's biggest horse race.
Going by the odds, even fewer were seen by the public at large as having a legitimate shot at Derby glory, and all of them would be under 10-1 when the wagering stopped.
Brian's Time, the Florida Derby winner, was being given a look, but that victory had been the brighest spot in what had been a mixed bag of results in stakes races at three. Brian's Time followed up the Florida Derby with a third in Turfway Park's Grade II Jim Beam Stakes, but more recently had been fifth in the Wood Memorial.
Running second to Brian's Time in the Florida Derby was Forty Niner, 1987's Champion Two-Year-Old Colt. A clearly talented Thoroughbred who was part of a Woody Stephens coupled entry with Cefis, Forty Niner had been first or second in just about every career start before heading to Kentucky. As a sophomore, he counted the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes and Lafayette Stakes among his victories.
Private Terms had an even better record than Forty Niner. In fact, he was undefeated as he came off a victory in the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Before then, he added the Grade III Federico Tesio Stakes and Grade II Gotham Stakes to his collection.
Also in the field was the son of a Triple Crown winner. Sired by Secretariat, Risen Star had never been worse than second before the Kentucky Derby, and came into the race as winner of his last three starts. Based in Louisiana, he took the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes and the Grade III Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds before heading to Keeneland to take the Grade II Lexington Stakes. Being a son of Big Red, Risen Star was attempting to join his father as winner of racing's greatest and most elusive prize.
Then there was Winning Colors, the D. Wayne Lukas filly who had made history by becoming the first horse to sweep the Santa Anita Oaks and Santa Anita Derby, both Grade I contests. Like Forty Niner and Risen Star, she displayed outstanding consistency, not finishing out of the top two before arriving at Churchill Downs. Teaming up with regular rider Gary Stevens, Winning Colors was in the midst of possibly making some history.
Before 1988, only two fillies walked out of Louisville as a Kentucky Derby winner. Regret was the first to do so back in 1915, and the second was Genuine Risk in 1980. If Winning Colors were to win the Run for the Roses, it would put her in rare company. And if the daughter of Caro defeated the boys after the one and one-quarter mile journey around Churchill Downs, there was a fair chance she was going to do it by setting the tempo early. That had been her calling card at two and at three, but the question was whether she could get the Derby distance.
What was not in question, however, was that Winning Colors had class and momentum on her side. She also had plenty of support at the betting windows. Going by her final odds of nearly 7-2, many believed the roan filly had what it took to go ten furlongs on the first Saturday in May. If Derby history had factored into their race analysis, it certainly did not dissuade them from making their final decision.
After the horses completed the post parade, they each made their way into their respective spots in the starting gate. The last one to load was Forty Niner, who actually had the extreme outside post in the field and was one of a handful of horses to go to the auxilary gate. Just after he went in, the bell rang and the 114th Kentucky Derby got underway.
Winning Colors had entered post eleven in the starting gate well, and she and Stevens wasted no time once they left it. The strategy was simple: go to the front. They did just that, establishing control just seconds into the race. The fans in attendance saw the blue and gold silks of former San Diego Chargers owner Eugene V. Klein as Stevens and Winning Colors go by as the duo moved into first well before the first pass around the wire. Forty Niner overcame a wide trip to get into second, just off of Winning Colors by less than a length as they reached the far turn.
The filly was in total control as she made her way onto the backstretch, setting a sensible fraction of 23 seconds flat for the first split. Forty Niner initially stayed in second, but was overtaken by Seeking the Gold after leaving the first turn. Seeking the Gold was down a couple of lengths to the leader, who cleared the half-mile in 46 4/5. Private Terms, Brian's Time and Risen Star were all well behind the filly, and they had to do some serious catching up in order to win.
As for Winning Colors, she looked relaxed while controlling the pace. In fact, she looked like she was loping along as the field pursued her. Still with a clear lead after running three-quarters of a mile in 1:11 2/5, no one was offering a challenge to her. Proper Reality was now in second place, followed by Seeking the Gold. Forty Niner and Private Terms held fourth and fifth, respectively.
A raucous cheer could be heard as Winning Colors and Stevens began the final stretch. Less than a quarter-mile remained, and there were no horses between them and the wire. The lead was still several lengths, and the filly continued powering home near the inside part of the track. Only one horse was making a bid to beat her, and that was Forty Niner. He and Pat Day were flying with less than a sixteenth of a mile to go, furiously trying to catch Winning Colors. They got to within a length in the final jumps, and then a half-length, but the wire came before they could get any closer. With a final time of 2:02 1/5, the race was over.
Of the fellow principals on the tote board, Forty Niner was the best finisher in second. Risen Star closed well in the stretch to take third, while Brian's Time came in sixth and Private Terms ninth. But none of them, nor anyone else in the field, could stop the momentum of the filly.
Something special happened on May 7, 1988. Winning Colors justified her odds while at the same time defying the odds. One of the favorites at the start of the race, she also began as a longshot in regards to history. But the result was the same.
She was the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Since 1988, no other filly has won the Run for the Roses, and that seems to make the aura of Winning Colors grow. She gracefully handled the boys, did not flinch in the face of history, and ensured her name would be remembered in the annals of the turf. People will never cease talking about her performance, for it symbolizes just how special she was.
Winning Colors would go on to win the Eclipse for Champion Three-Year-Old Filly, but the Kentucky Derby is what she is remembered for. And why not? It is rare to see a filly wear the garland of roses, and it may be years before it is ever seen again.
But Winning Colors had been a champion even before the Kentucky Derby. She ascended to something greater on that first Saturday in May, for her victory in Louisville propelled her to the status of legend.