Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 33 Days to Go!!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 33 Days to Go!!

Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, would give Bill Shoemaker his final Derby win, and trainer Charlie Whittingham his first. His only races outside of California would be his three starts in the Triple Crown series. Whittingham had only started two other horses in the Kentucky Derby, and it had been 26 years since. He had decided that he wouldn’t return until he had a good horse. Ferdinand was that horse. The colt was bred by Howard B. Keck, a one-time Indy 500 auto-racing team owner, who raced the chestnut in his wife’s name, Elizabeth “Libby” Keck. By Nijinski II, the youngster was out of the Double Jay mare, Banja Luka and foaled at Claiborne Farm. The Keck’s named their home-bred after a bull sculpture that Howard brought home from a trip to Africa. The sculpture was nicknamed Ferdinand by the couple, deciding that their beautiful colt should be named after it. Libby also said that he reminded her of the book where the bull loved to smell the flowers, although Ferdinand the horse preferred to smell the grass rather than run over it.

As a 2YO, Ferdinand would start five times, with a record of 1-1-2-1. Finishing eighth in his first race, under the current successful trainer, jockey Wesley Ward, it was Ferdinand’s only out-of-the-money race in 1985. He would finish third and second prior to his first victory, when taking a maiden by 1¼ lengths. Jumping the colt right into a stakes, he would finish third in the Hollywood Futurity behind the talented Snow Chief, with whom he would later have a rivalry.

Ferdinand’s sophomore campaign saw him only competing in stakes races. Starting on January 4th, he finished second by a head after having a length and a half lead at the 1/8 mile. Though the colt seemed to be progressing, he would lose focus when he was on the lead for too long. In the Santa Catalina he managed to hang on, winning by a half length, yet on February 22nd, he again lost by a half length after having a two length lead. In his final start prior to the Kentucky Derby, Ferdinand would finish third, seven lengths behind winner Snow Chief. The track was wet, although it was labeled as fast, leading to a somewhat greasy track that Ferdinand wasn’t able to get comfortable on, slipping across it.

With his other starters finishing 8th and 9th in the 1958 and 1960 running’s of the Kentucky Derby, “The Bald Eagle” Charlie Whittingham finally returned to the Louisville oval with a horse he thought had a chance. Even though it was widely known that Whittingham had said that he wouldn’t contest the race unless he had a contender, the chestnut colt was mostly overlooked, despite a sharp 5-furlong work in :58 3/5 during Derby week. With the connections that had been tabbed as “The Sunshine Boys” due to their California base, as well as their age, the 73-year-old Whittingham and 54-year-old jockey Bill Shoemaker had a horse that was peaking at just the right time for the big race.

In 1986, the Churchill Paddock was moved to it’s current area, with a 2.5-million-dollar paddock tote board put into place, while the old paddock was turned into a beer garden. It was put in to give people more access to seeing the contenders as they were saddled and prepared for the races. The paddock was just another of the big changes the track would see after the implementation of the turf track.

Derby day was packed with 123,819, up nearly 15,000 from the year prior, in large part due to the quality of the field. Two of the big names that were in the field of 16 included the Jim Beam Stakes and Wood Memorial victor Broad Brush, along with the heralded Santa Anita Derby winner Snow Chief. Ferdinand, who drew the rail, would go off at 17-1 in the Run for the Roses. Given a perfect ride after getting bumped, Ferdinand and Shoemaker would make their way around the field from last place, at one point trailing the leader by 24 lengths. The speedster Groovy set a furious pace, clocking the fastest half mile in history, :45 1/5. Snow Chief tracked the pace in fourth, taking the lead midway through the final turn, although he would have little left to turn back any challengers. At the quarter pole, Ferdinand and Shoemaker were fifth after picking off the field by going 4 wide. The horses in front were slowing, while Shoemaker knew he had plenty of horse left. Instead of staying wide, in a move that paid off, Shoe took Ferdinand down to the rail, giving them the hole they needed to get through. The leaders would drift out, allowing Shoemaker and Ferdinand to take off with no loafing, passing under the wire in front by 2¼ lengths in a time of 2:02 4/5. Shoemaker became the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby at 54, and Whittingham was the oldest trainer twice, with Ferdinand and Sunday Silence in 1989. The record stood until 2014 when Art Sherman won with California Chrome at 77.

The trio would head to the Preakness, where they earned second behind a more reasonable pace that allowed Snow Chief to shoot to the lead, finishing 4 lengths in front of Ferdinand who made another come from behind run as he was sixth in the field of seven. The Belmont featured three horses whose trainers were all in their 70’s, and they all finished in the top three. Woody Stephens at 72 was given his fifth straight Belmont victory by Danzig Connection, who finished in front of 79-year-old Walter Kelly’s John’s Treasure and Ferdinand coming in third over the muddy track.

Heading back to California, Ferdinand was rested for six months, making his return a victorious one. In the December 26th Malibu, a rivalry with Snow Chief was born, as Ferdinand blew past him for a length and a quarter win. Even though they had faced off before with each winning an equal number over the other, Snow Chief still earned the 3YO Championship, due to his six stakes victories, versus Ferdinand’s two. The rivalry would continue while the horses were four, facing each other four times. In an agonizing six months for the connections of Ferdinand, the colt would suffer six losses, two by tight heartbreaking photos. After winning the 7-furlong Malibu, it was thought that Ferdinand would do better in the remaining two races in the Strub series, as they were two turn contests. However, in the San Fernando, Snow Chief finished 3rd in front of the seemingly uninterested 4th place Ferdinand. Training well for the 1¼ mile Strub, Eddie Delahoussaye who was substituting for Shoemaker, kept the chestnut closer to the pace, allowing for a terrific stretch battle with Snow Chief, who bumped Ferdinand in the final stride, causing him to lose by the slimmest of noses. Reunited with Shoemaker for the Santa Anita Handicap, the duo had a length lead at the 1/8 marker, when Broad Brush came flying down the stretch to win by an inch, with Snow Chief finishing 5th. Snow Chief would head east while the plans for Ferdinand included two starts on the turf, due to his breeding. Unfortunately, the long-striding colt wouldn’t take to it as his bloodlines suggested. Placing 4th in the San Luis Rey and 3rd in the John Henry Handicap, Ferdinand returned to the dirt in his final match up with Snow Chief in the Californian, a prep for the Hollywood Gold Cup. While a Whittingham trainee won the race, it wasn’t Ferdinand, instead finishing fourth behind Judge Angelucci, as Snow Chief came in third. Ferdinand’s rival Snow Chief was discovered to have a tendon injury after the race, leading to his retirement and an end to their battles.  

Following the Californian, Ferdinand would turn his fortunes around with three consecutive victories prior to taking on the Breeders’ Cup Classic, taking the Hollywood Gold Cup, Cabrillo, and Goodwood Handicaps.   In the Breeders’ Cup, Ferdinand would go off as the favorite at 7-2, while the current Kentucky Derby champion, Alysheba, was the second choice. The two Derby heroes would hook up in an intense stretch battle, with Ferdinand gaining the advantage in the final yards. Digging in, Alysheba would come back with the two passing under the wire so close that the riders, Shoemaker and Chris McCarron, didn’t even know who had won. When the photo came back, it was Ferdinand the winner in the narrowest of victories, becoming the first Kentucky Derby star to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The win would also be the first of two for Whittingham, with Bill Shoemaker getting his only Breeders’ Cup victory out of 14 mounts. The victory helped Ferdinand earn Champion Older Horse as well as 1987 Horse of the Year.  

Coming back to race at five, the chestnut champion wouldn’t find the winner’s circle in six starts, yet finished second to Alysheba in the Santa Anita Handicap and the San Bernardino.   Retired with a record of 8 wins, 9 seconds, and 6 thirds out of 29 starts, Ferdinand earned $3,777,978, landing him fifth on the all-time earnings list at the time. He would stand at Claiborne Farm in 1989, finding little success. In the Fall of 1994, Ferdinand was sold to Japan’s JS Company, spending 6 breeding seasons at Arrow Stud, from 1995-2000. His first year the stallion would be bred to 77 mares, while his final year the number was 10. He was given away after the 2000 season, with reports making their way to the states in 2003 following an attempt by the Keck’s to track him down and have him returned stateside, that the Derby hero and one-time Horse of the Year had met his demise in a Japanese slaughterhouse.   The resulting outcry led to laws being passed outlawing slaughter in the United States, with protocols and measures put into place to return horses to the States once their breeding career is over. Agreements have been made between the Japanese Racing Association and Old Friends to help send them home, in addition to many groups being formed to help raise money to help fund the costs of the returns.  

(Picture courtesy of KDM archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum