Derby Thriller: Mystik Dan, team add to race’s rich history

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The walkover for the Kentucky Derby always packs a punch, especially for Saturday’s 150th renewal at Churchill Downs. Tom Law Photo.

They came for a horse race. Sure, they came for history and a party, too, but really it’s still about the race.

All 156,710 strong that turned out and packed every corner of Churchill Downs from the infield grass to Millionaire’s Row. They partied. They imbibed. They danced. They chanted. All of that, all really to kill some time before doing what they came for.

They came for a horse race and they got it, one worthy of its place in history. Three noses on the wire. A gallant winner hanging on, desperately, to give his jockey and trainer a historic double. A hard-charging, destined-for-greatness-since-birth runner-up, just to the outside of a foreign invader carrying the hopes of his proud island nation.

They came for a horse race and got it, one they’ll never forget and one that’ll be talked about for years.

Mystik Dan, a son of Goldencents who went off at more than 18-1, came out on top in Saturday’s history-rich 150th renewal of the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve. In winning the first three-way photo in the Derby since 1947, Mystik Dan edged Sierra Leone, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner and 9-2 second choice; and the previously unbeaten Forever Young, Japan’s representative and the 7-1 third pick. Noses separated the trio, almost 2 lengths clear of fourth-place Catching Freedom. Combined, they delivered a finish in the opening jewel of the Triple Crown that will be tough to top.

And the history-making didn’t stop there.

Mystik Dan also gave jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. and trainer Kenny McPeek a sweep of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, the first jockey-trainer combo to do it.

McPeek also joined Hall of Famers Ben Jones (1949 and 1952) and Herbert “Derby Dick” Thompson (1933) as trainers to pull off the Oaks-Derby double. Hernandez became the eighth rider with an Oaks-Derby double, joining a group that includes Hall of Famers Eddie Arcaro, Jerry Bailey, Calvin Borel, Bill Boland, Isaac Murphy and Don Brumfield along with Don Meade.

Owned by Lance Gasaway, Daniel Hamby, 4 G Racing and Valley View Farm, Mystik Dan added the $5 million Derby to his victory two starts back in the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park and a maiden victory in November at Churchill Downs. He came into the Derby off a third behind Muth and Just Steel in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby and became the eighth winner of the Run for the Roses to come from that prep in Hot Springs.

“It still hasn’t sunk in; it’s unbelievable,” Hernandez said almost an hour later. “We came into the weekend thinking we had good chances, really big chances, both Friday and Saturday. And then to just have the horses pull it off for us, we really have to thank all the guys back in the barn. They put so much work into this to have these horses ready on days like today and yesterday.

“It’s just, like I said, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to sink in, but it’s definitely a surreal moment right now.”

McPeek grew up just down Interstate 64 in Lexington and like any lifelong Kentucky horseman, dreamed of winning the Derby. Never one to hold back, McPeek ended Friday’s Kentucky Oaks press conference with “count on it” when it was mentioned he might be back Saturday.

Mystik Dan, like Thorpedo Anna the day before in the Oaks, gave the trainer all the confidence needed for Saturday’s historic run.

“For three weeks, I felt like we were going to win both races,” McPeek said. “I can’t tell you why. Both horses have been so easy to deal with. The team has done such a great job every day.

“There’s been no drama. Lance and Sharilyn (Gasaway) have been wonderful people to have involved here. They came in and decided to absorb it all and enjoy it. I just believe in mojo. I believe in positive energy. And we had a lot of that. And, you know, we had two really, really good horses. Brian did an amazing job today. Just really honored and proud to be here.”

McPeek called Hernandez’s ride – just his fifth in the Derby – “typical” and in the most complimentary way.

“He knows what to do out there,” McPeek said. “I always had a world of confidence in him. Rarely second‑guess anything he ever does. When something doesn’t go right, he tells me about it before I even have to mention it.”

Hernandez, a 38-year-old from Lafayette, La., who rode Fort Larned to victory in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic, learned some of those lessons watching his fellow riders and one in particular.

“The last 20 years I’ve ridden here in Kentucky and as a young kid out of Louisiana, I got the privilege of sitting in the same corner as Calvin Borel,” Hernandez said. “So, I got to watch him ride those Derbies all those years. And today, with Mystik Dan being in the three hole, I watched a couple of his rides there between the Super Saver and Mine That Bird.”

Hernandez watched Borel win the 2007 Derby with Super Saver and the 2009 version with 50-1 shot Mine That Bird. Both enjoyed ground-saving trips.

“You know what? We’re going to roll the dice,” Hernandez said of his Saturday tactics.

Hernandez guided Mystik Dan, the 18-1 seventh choice in the field of 20, to the rail almost immediately after the break. They stayed there through the stretch the first time and were seventh as Track Phantom, Just Steel, Fierceness and Epic Ride battled across the track for the advantage just ahead of Stronghold and West Saratoga.

The opening quarter-mile went in a sharp :22.97 and the hot pace continued around the clubhouse turn as Track Phantom, Just Steel and Fierceness made it a three-way battle to the half in :46.63.

John Velazquez, aboard 2023 champion 2-year-old and 3-1 favorite Fierceness, didn’t like how the early stages unfolded.

“His first jump was not very good,” he said. “His second and third jump, he was OK. He got pretty aggressive since I had to give him a nudge out of there. The horses on the outside put the pressure on and then he got into the bridle. I tried to keep him as settled as much without doing too much but he was already engaged.”

Hernandez could not have been more pleased. He watched the pace battle play out, which saw Track Phantom and Just Steel continue to lead through 6 furlongs in 1:11.31, with Fierceness poised to their outside. Mystik Dan stayed down inside up the backstretch and into the far turn, racing in fifth.

Just Steel gave way first, on the turn, as Track Phantom and Fierceness slugged it out and the pack started to close from behind. Fierceness came to Track Phantom approaching the top of the stretch and the mile split in 1:37.46. Turning for home, Hernandez squeezed through a small hole between Track Phantom and the rail, bumping each in a move reminiscent of Borel on Mine That Bird.

“Once we got to the second turn … everybody outside of Track Phantom started piling up and piling up. I had a nice little pocket there,” Hernandez said. “I was like, ‘Well, we will just sit here and let them pile up.’ Once Track Phantom moved off the rail just half a step, we were able to kind of get through there.

“Once he cut the corner, he got a little separation on the closers that were forced to kind of go around the horses that were tiring.”

And that’s when the horse race the people came to see really started to unfold.

Mystik Dan opened up past the three-sixteenths pole, accelerating well ahead of the late runs put in by Stronghold and Resilience to the outside. Mystik Dan led by 2 lengths at the eighth pole with Sierra Leone and Forever Young fully engaged side-by-side and making late runs of their own.

The photo finish for the 150th Kentucky Derby tells the tale, with Mystik Dan edging Sierra Leone (2) and Forever Young (11). Churchill Downs Photo.

The lead shrunk to about 1 1/2 lengths past the sixteenth pole. Hernandez kept his head down, giving Mystik Dan a furious hand ride as Sierra Leone and Forever Young cut the margin. They surged in the shadow of the finish but Mystik Dan stuck his nose out enough, just enough, to win by a nose.

Chad Brown, trainer of Sierra Leone, watched live and thought he came up short. Watching the replay, and seeing Sierra Leone’s bob at the finish, thought maybe just maybe.

“Then when they started showing the slo-mo, I thought maybe this could be a dead heat because I got a great bob,” Brown said. “I just wasn’t in front. I got a great bob actually, but it’s tough to know which angles the TV actually has. But it didn’t feel good when they started to show (Mystik Dan) on the pan shot on the TV.”

Brown saluted the effort of Sierra Leone, who was 12 1/2 lengths back through the opening half-mile and suffered just his second defeat in five starts, each by a nose.

“It’s a tough one, but he’s a tremendous horse, nearly undefeated,” Brown said. “I’m just so lucky to have him, so proud of his effort today. He did what we asked him to do, just came up a little bit short.”

The first three were 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Louisiana Derby winner Catching Freedom. Japan’s T O Password finished fifth in just his third start, with Wood Memorial winner Resilience sixth and Santa Anita Derby winner Stronghold seventh. Fierceness, runaway winner of the Florida Derby, wound up 15th and 24 ½ lengths back.

Mystik Dan won in 2:03.34, nowhere close to the fastest or slowest in the 150-year history of the race. The three-way photo was the first in the Derby since Jet Pilot edged Phalanx and Faultless in 1947.

That renewal, the 73rd not long after the end of World War II on a track rated slow, unfolded in front of a significantly smaller crowd than Saturday’s. But both audiences got what they came for – a race that lived up to the hype.

Bred by Gasaway and Hamby from their Colonel John mare Ma’am, Mystik Dan finished second in his debut at Keeneland in October and graduated at Churchill in November. His 2023 began with a fifth in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn and continued with the 8-length ripper in the Southwest before the third in the Arkansas Derby March 30. Next stop, history.

“It is surreal for sure,” said winning co-owner Sharilyn Gasaway. “We feel like we are just ordinary people and we have got just an amazing horse that God gave us. And I feel like that this horse – Kenny calls him an old soul because he’s so chill. And if you watched him walking over to the paddock, he was so chill. Nothing spooks this horse. I was grazing him earlier this week. Races are going on. Nothing bothers him. He gets a lot of that from his mama. We are just so grateful and so blessed.”