Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 96 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 96 days to go!

96 Days!!! 1923 Zev was the 4th of 5 Kentucky Derby winners bred or co-bred by John E. Madden. He was by The Finn, out of the stakes producing *Planudes mare, Miss Kearney. The brown colt was purchased privately for an undisclosed sum as a yearling by oilman, Henry Sinclair, owner of Rancocoas Farm and Stable located in New Jersey.

Sinclair named the colt after his close friend and attorney, W.H. Zeverly. Zev would be trained by Sam Hildreth, who grew up on a farm in Kansas, where he learned to train just about anything. He became a trainer by using his horse knowledge to get one horse, and his handicapping knowledge to bet on that one horse, so that when it finished in front, he won enough money to buy more horses to train. He was very good at handicapping, so much so that he had to start having people bet for him. If others knew that he was betting on a horse, they would bet the horse so heavily that it would lower the odds. As a result, he would have someone stop by his house at night and he would give them the horses and money to place his wagers.

As a 2YO, Zev would start 12 times, having a record of 5-4-2. The five wins were consecutive, with him taking the Albany Handicap and Grand Union Hotel Stakes. He finished second in the Belmont Futurity and third in the Hopeful Stakes. His accomplishments were enough to earn him 2YO Male Championship honors.

Zev started his 3YO campaign winning the Paumonok Handicap by a neck over older horses. In 1923, the Preakness was run a week before the Kentucky Derby, so on May 12th, Zev would take on the Preakness, turning in one of his worst performances when he finished 12th. Jockey Earl Sande, who wasn’t Zev’s regular rider was aboard, and after the colt was kicked at the start, he then tried to rate the horse. Zev wanted no part of being behind the others, refusing to run. Sinclair and Hildreth were upset, thinking that maybe he wasn’t the colt they thought. However, three days later, Hildreth entered the colt in the 6 furlong Rainbow Handicap. With Sande again aboard, the pair won easily in a good time of 1:12. Then, according to directions, they continued past the finish line, working a total of a mile and an eighth in a time of 1:55. Hildreth, pleased with the outcome, then thought of giving Zev a second chance at the Derby.Sande talked Sinclair into sending the colt, although he didn’t need much convincing.

Hildreth and Sinclair had bet Zev heavily in the winter books, however it ultimately came down to a side bet with Colonel E.R. Bradley that sealed the deal. Bradley, who loved to make up wagers, wanted to bet anyone early in the year that their horse would even make the race. Sinclair took the wager for $5000. The day after the Rainbow, Zev was on a train car, headed to Churchill Downs, without Hildreth and Sinclair. Sinclair was appealing to the stewards to let Laverne Fator, his other contract jockey, ride in the Kentucky Derby. Fator had been suspended by the stewards, and while Sinclair was a member of the racing board, one steward refused to let Fator ride. Sinclair was furious, leading people to speculate that he wasn’t going to run Zev in the race. However, he wanted to have an entry in the Derby with his horse Rigel, considered a better stayer, who had finished 3rd in the Rainbow behind Zev. The thought that Zev might not make the race, prompted Colonel Winn and Preston Burch, the trainer of General Thatcher, to send telegrams to the stewards, appealing for his release, so that Fator could ride General Thatcher in the race. Again, the appeal didn’t go through.

Jockey Earl Sande and assistant trainer Don Leary made the journey to Louisville with Zev, while Sinclair felt he had better horses running in New York. Hildreth, knowing he had 4-5 horses running at the New York track, believed that he needed to be there to handle the large stable, in addition to possibly not having a Kentucky trainer’s license. He sent Leary to saddle Zev, their lone starter at Churchill.

Many improvements were made to the Churchill plant for the 1923 meet. There was a new grandstand, as well as the addition of more boxes, to help with the growing crowd. One of the biggest improvements however was the moving of the finish line. Because the Kentucky Derby had previously been started on the turn, leading to the inside horses on the rail often being deprived of a fair start, the track officials moved the finish 50 yards down the track so that it was closer to the clubhouse turn. The start was now on the straightaway in an area that was 112 feet wide. Zev broke on top at 19-1 and led the entire race, winning easily by two lengths in a time of 2:05 2/5. Sande was overjoyed and Leary stunned. He went to the judge’s stand for the presentation. In addition to the $53,600 Zev earned for the victory, he also received a plate valued at $5000. Word was sent to New York, resulting in racing officials informing Sinclair of his colt's victory. The owner was said to have sat in stunned silence. He had just made approximately $500,000 on his wagers.Louisville Herald: “At the furlong pole Zev met his severest test. He seemed to be weakening from the strenuous struggle, and Martingale appeared to be the stronger. But Sande again called upon his game mount, and Zev did as Hindoo would have done. With fiery nostrils, he met challenge with challenge, and displayed a heart of steel. To the accompaniment of the hoarse shouts of the multitude and without faltering, he kept on his way, and passed the finishing line in front, with lots to spare…”

Zev continued on, winning seven races in a row after the Derby, including the May 26th Withers and the June 9th Belmont. After the Belmont, Zev was entered at the last minute into the June 23rd Queens City Handicap. Hildreth believed the horse needed a stiff workout in preparation for his next race, as he had outworked all of the other horses in the stable. He won easily, but unfortunately stepped on a stone a few days later that led to a two month layoff. Returning in September, he made easy work of a six furlong overnight race used as a prep for the Lawrence Realization Handicap. Zev carried 126 pounds in the Handicap, although it didn’t matter as Sande tapped the colt at the top of the stretch and he took off to win by 2 ½ lengths.

The race “The Brown Express” may be best known for though was a $100,000 match race (the richest race at time), that took place at Belmont racetrack, versus Epsom Derby winner Papyrus. The race had worldwide interest as it was the first time a Kentucky Derby winner took on an Epsom Derby winner. Papyrus made the journey to America for the October 20th International Race, while Zev developed a throat infection that caused him to break out in a rash. They thought that he may not make the start, although he responded well to the treatment, ready to go. Papyrus made a fine showing in his work prior to the match, covering 9 furlongs in 1:50 2/5, 1 and 1/5 seconds off of Man O’ War’s world record at the distance.

The track came up muddy on race day, due to a downpour, so Hildreth had Zev shod with mud plates. Several American trainers suggested to Jarvis, Papyrus’ trainer, that he have the mud plates put on as well. He refused saying that he had never worn them and would be fine. Though news spread about the shoes, the public still made him the even-money favorite, while Zev was 4-5. The two horses went to post, Papyrus with his pony and groom. Zev had a poor start, taking over though by the time they reached the ¼ pole, and never looked back. Papyrus slipped all over the track, trying as he might, never able to find footing in the muddy going. Zev won by five lengths, under wraps, in a time of 2:35 2/5 for the mile and a half contest.

Next, he would win the one mile Autumn Championship Stakes, before having his win streak snapped by losing to In Memoriam during the Latonia Championship Stakes. This loss would then lead to a second match race, a mile and a quarter contest over the Churchill Downs race course that was set up by Matt Winn. In the race, Zev again broke slowly, however he quickly grabbed the lead. Sande then took the colt back, allowing In Memoriam to take a 2 length lead and set the pace. As they turned into the stretch, Sande loosed Zev and he shot forward, catching and passing In Memoriam to lead by a length and a half. The challenger wasn’t finished, rallying to pull even. The two horses passed under the wire together, with little to separate them. 3 of the 5 judges gave the victory to Zev, who would stop the timer in 2:06 3/5. All together Zev's 3YO season saw him win 12 of his 14 starts, breaking the money earned in one year record with $272,008. The campaign earned him Champion 3YO Male and Horse of the Year honors.

He continued racing through his 4YO year, retiring to Rancocoas as the world’s leading money earner with $318,048. He stood at the New Jersey farm until 1933, when he was moved to Kentucky for 2 years. He sired 47 winners and 2 stakes winners, Zilda and Zevson, from 95 named foals. He moved back to his owner’s Rancocoas Farm in 1935 until 1941, at which time Sinclair gave Zev to Brigadier General Patrick Hurley. Zev was pensioned to his Virginia farm where he lived until he passed in 1943 at the age of 23.


Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum