Had the 146th Kentucky Derby been run as scheduled Saturday, it would have marked the 16th time the race was on May 2.
Some notes on previous May 2 editions:
- Elmwood won the 1904 Derby, the only Missouri-bred to win it.
- Bill Shoemaker picked up the second of his four Derby wins aboard Tomy Lee in 1959.
- Alysheba’s triumph in 1987 gave trainer Jack Van Berg his only Derby win and jockey Chris McCarron his first (of two, Go For Gin came next in 1994).
- While Lil E. Tee pulled off a 16-1 upset in 1992, Arazi’s finish was even more shocking. The 4-5 favorite finished eighth, his first loss in eight starts.
- Shh. In 1998, Real Quiet gave Bob Baffert back-to-back Derby wins. Baffert has added three since.
- Calvin Borel guided 50-1 shot Mine That Bird up the Churchill Downs rail and completed a last-to-first run to shock the world in 2009.
Enough about May 2. This year’s Derby is scheduled for Sept. 5, the third time it is not run in May and the first since 1945. If you’re looking for the significance of that date in racing history, start with the 2009 Woodward, the day that, in the words of the incomparable Tom Durkin, “Rachel Alexandra raises the rafters at the Spa.”
The 1901 Derby was run April 29 and won by His Eminence, ridden by Jimmy Winkfield, who would win again in 1902 aboard Alan-a-Dale, marking the last time an African-American jockey has been victorious in the Derby.
In 1945, horse racing nationwide was shut down Jan. 3 by James F. Byrnes, the director of War Mobilization for the country (and future secretary of state, who, ironically, was born May 2). As noted in James C. Nicholson’s comprehensive “The Kentucky Derby,” Byrnes reasoned that with the U.S. still entrenched in World War II, racing was not an essential activity.
Fortunately, Germany would soon surrender and, three days after V-E Day, racing returned in May.
The Derby was run June 9 before a crowd of 75,000, who wagered $2,380,796 on the Churchill card. Hoop Jr. gave Eddie Arcaro, who shares the record for Derby wins with Bill Hartack, the third of his five. On the same day, war hero Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was honored with a homecoming parade in downtown Los Angeles.
About 110 miles north of Los Angeles, Army Air Corps private Robert Copelan listened to the Derby on the radio while working in the Officer’s Mess at Minter Army Airfield in Bakersfield. He heard that the winning owner was Fred Hooper, who struck Derby gold with his first horse.
Almost 30 years later, Copelan, who went on to a distinguished 65-year career as a veterinarian, operated on Hooper’s standout mare, 1972 Kentucky Oaks winner Susan’s Girl, whom he recalled had broken a sesamoid in her left front ankle. The injury was serious but Susan’s Girl recovered and returned nine months later to win the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs in November 1974. Susan’s Girl ended her career with 29 wins and $1.25 million in earnings.
In 1980 Susan’s Girl, who had been bred to Tri Jet, a turf star also treated by Copelan, produced a foal. Hooper named the horse Copelan, and the equine version was also a star, winning seven of 17 starts, including the Sanford, Hopeful, Champagne and Fountain of Youth.
Seventy-five years ago, the Derby was delayed by war; this year, by pandemic. Who knows what 2095 will hold.