The 1986 Kentucky Derby

Longshots winning a horse race is nothing new. It happens at a racetrack every day somewhere around the world. But there are times where a longshot does more than just pull of a surprise victory. That winner captivates the hearts of millions not just at that brief moment of time, but does so with subsequent generations as well.

Such a winner presented himself on May 3, 1986.

The racing world directed its attention to the 112th Kentucky Derby. Sixteen three-year-olds were on hand to decide who would win the annual Run for the Roses. The consensus had it down to two horses. The first was the talented Snow Chief, a California-bred who had gone undefeated in his Kentucky Derby prep season, winning the California Breeders' Champion Stakes, the Grade III El Camino Real Derby, and the Grade I Florida and Santa Anita Derbies. A versatile runner who could win with tactical speed or from rallying from off the pace, Snow Chief had plenty of backing as the 2-1 post time favorite.

Joining the Mel Stute trainee was Badger Land, who had yet to defeat Snow Chief in four starts. Conditioned by D. Wayne Lukas, the son of Codex had been in outstanding form since last meeting Snow Chief in the Florida Derby. Moving to Hialeah Park, Badger Land embarked on a two-race winning streak, taking the Grade II Everglades and Grade I Flamingo Stakes at the venue. Given how neither horse (or anyone in the field, for that matter) had yet attempted the Kentucky erbyy distance of a mile and one-quarter, the question was whether Badger Land might overtake Snow Chief. Many thought he could, making Badger Land the 5-2 second choice.

Another horse who had met Snow Chief previously was Ferdinand, a chestnut who had lost to the former in the Santa Anita Derby and the Grade I Hollywood Futurity at Hollywood Park the previous December. In between those starts, Ferdinand finished second in Santa Anita's Los Feliz Stakes, won the Santa Catalina Stakes, and came second in the Grade II San Rafael Stakes. Trained by the legendary Charlie Whittingham, Ferdinand would have his regular rider, Bill Shoemaker, in the saddle.

After drawing the rail for the Kentucky Derby, it was clear Ferdinand had his work cut out for him. The son of Nijinsky II liked to come from behind when racing, meaning he would have a lot of horses to pass if he used that same method of running.

Campaigned by Elizabeth Keck, Ferdinand was not seen as a contender by the betting public. Whether it was the post position, his win-loss record, or the fact Snow Chief had defeated him twice before, he was sent away at 17-1 odds in the starting gate.

Ferdinand actually started the race well, but was pinned along the rail while everyone else moved by him down the first stretch. Already last by the time he reached the clubhouse turn, Ferdinand had a tall order staring at him. But Shoemaker, thrice a Kentucky Derby winner, kept his cool. He took Ferdinand off the rail and they began taking on horses going down the backstretch.

Meanwhile, the pace was fast. Groovy, who had been expected to be a pacesetter, was setting swift fractions up front. But his success prior to the Derby had come in sprints, so it was debatable as to whether he could lead the entire ten panels. Snow Chief and his rider, Alex Solis, stayed within a few lengths of the leader, keeping close as he sought his sixth straight victory.

The pace was what Shoemaker and Whittingham wanted. As the Kentucky Derby progressed, Shoemaker guided Ferdinand through the field, splitting horses and passing them on the outside. Well into the far turn, they had put five horses behind them, and there was plenty left in the tank.

Groovy, who was ridden by Laffit Pincay, Jr., had enough before reaching the top of the stretch, fading as Ferdinand continued on. The pace had worked to his advantage, and all of a sudden, he and Shoemaker were right on the lead pack's tail. After being last and far back only a moment earlier, they were in position to maybe deliver a big upset as they reached the top of the stretch, no doubt exciting those who picked him to win.

Turning for home, Snow Chief had nothing left, and he began to move backwards, finishing up in eleventh place. Bold Arrangement, Broad Brush, and Badger Land were the only horses ahead now. Badger Land had put together a remarkable run of his own after having trouble at the start of the race, furiously rallying to be in contention. Wheatly Hall was on Ferdinand's inside, outrunning his odds.

Though Ferdinand and Shoemaker had put together a commendable run, there was a problem. They had the British import Bold Arrangement, Broad Brush, and Badger Land all in a line ahead of them. This was the worst scenario possible in a race, especially on a grand stage like the Kentucky Derby. But Shoemaker found an opening along the rail. In a split second, the Hall of Fame rider steered Ferdinand towards it. They got by Wheatly Hall and began to charge on the inside. As the other three engaged in their own battle, Shoemaker and Ferdinand emerged with the lead, shocking announcer Mike Battaglia and thousands of fans watching at Churchill Downs and around the country.

They did not let up in the final seconds. Ferdinand ran gallantly, and he crossed the wire in 2:02 4/5 in a mesmerizing performance that produced a stunning victory under the Twin Spires, defeating Bold Arrangement, Broad Brush, Rampage, and Badger Land. It was the fourth Kentucky Derby win for Shoemaker, who was subsequently praised for delivering what has been regarded as one of the finest rides of his illustrious career. He set a record that day, too, for at age fifty-four, he became the oldest jockey to win the Run for the Roses.

Joining him in the history books was Charlie Whittingham, who at seventy-three took over the record for oldest Derby-winning trainer. The Bald Eagle would break his own mark three years later with Sunday Silence before Art Sherman guided California Chrome to a Derby triumph in 2014.

The 1986 Kentucky Derby marked the end of a long wait for Shoemaker and Whittingham. Though Shoemaker had won the Derby three times already, the most recent one had come in 1965 with Lucky Debonair. Shoe no doubt wondered if he would pick up another victory in the Triple Crown opener since that time, and he finally did so. And it was an emotional victory for the Texan. I had a few tears in my eyes coming back to the winners' circle," he said. "This is the best one of the group. This is the twilight of the career."/p>

While Shoemaker had been a staple on Derby Day, Whittingham's presence on the first Saturday in May had been surprisingly rare, especially consdering his extensive resume. Only two of his charges, Gone Fishin' (1958) and Divine Comedy (1960) made starts in the Kentucky Derby, and neither of them won. The third time proved to be the charm for Whittingham, who liked Ferdinand's chances going into the race. "I had a lot of confidence in this horse," he said after the race. "I had a strong feeling he was going to be a real good horse. He proved it today."

Though seen as a big longshot going into the race, Ferdinand was actually bred to go the Derby distance. His grandsire, Northern Dancer, had won the Kentucky Derby in 1964. Plus, Ferdinand's sire, Nijinsky II, had taken the English Triple Crown back in 1970, winning at distances greater than a mile and a quarter. Going by pedigree, it appeared that Ferdinand had a chance to do well in Kentucky. It was an eventful race, but he proved that reasoning to be right in Louisville.

Ferdinand's victory was an instant classic, and its legend has only grown in the years since. It stands as one of the most popular wins in Kentucky Derby history, and he and Shoemaker's journey from last to first remains just as mesmerizing now as it was then.

Sometimes, a horse is the subject of a storybook ending. It is made even more memorable if an underdog is involved. The odds on the Churchill Downs tote board said Ferdinand was an underdog, and the end result was one of racing's most endearing triumphs.


Clippinger, Don. "Back on Top." Philadelphia Inquirer, May 4, 1986, p. 15-D

Entry added July 30, 2020 by AF.