Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 97 days to go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 97 days to go!

97 Days!!! 1922 Morvich (Mor-Vick) became the first California bred to win the Kentucky Derby, by way of being bred by Adolph B. Spreckles who owned Napa Stock Farm near Sacramento. By Runnymede, out of the Dr. Leggo mare, Hymir, the nearly black colt was born with crooked legs and bad knees, which led to his being sold several times.

Spreckles named the colt after a Russian character in a novel he was reading, that seemed to find a way to come out ahead after being behind; hoping this colt would have the same traits. Morvich never raced in California, being shipped to New York to begin his racing career. Spreckles had tried to sell the colt, although it wouldn’t pan out when the potential buyer saw the condition of his knees. As a result, Spreckles still owned the colt when he made his first start in the Suffolk Selling Stakes, a $3000 claiming race. Morvich went off at 50-1, showing the rest of field his tail while he won by 15 lengths. He wasn’t claimed, although two days after the victory, Max Hirsch made a deal with Spreckles, buying the colt for $4500. Once he received Morvich into his barn and got to look at the racer’s legs, he regretted the decision.

A few days after buying the colt, he was able to sell Morvich for a profit to the trainer Fred Burlew, who paid $7500. Fred Burlew had trained many winners in the states and abroad, taking stakes in England, France, Germany, and Belgium. He was an incredible horseman that knew his horses and their potential. He knew exactly what they needed in their training to achieve victory. In buying Morvich, Burlew wasn’t quite sure what he had yet. As a result, 10 days after his first race, Morvich was started in what would be his final claiming race. With a $5000 tag, he won easily by four lengths, and again avoided being claimed. The following month, Burlew knew the horse better, and started Morvich in an allowance, which he proceeded to win by 6. It was at this point that Burlew realized he needed some financial backing, selling a half interest for $25,000 to Wall Street Banker and racing newbie, Benjamin Block.

Under the new partnership, Morvich reeled off victories in 3 sprint races at Aqueduct and Empire City. Having won six straight races, Burlew was offered $75,000 from actor/ singer Al Jolson. Burlew, knowing what he had, was still temped by the overwhelming offer. Block didn’t want to sell the colt, so when Morvich was entered in the United Hotel Stakes at Saratoga, he made his wagers count. Block bet $10,000 on his charge when he opened at odds of 8-5. When his odds reached 2-1, he bet another $10,000. Morvich won, leading Block to take the money that he won and buy out Burlew’s remaining shares, paying $35-40,000. Although Block owned the horse entirely, he understood that the trainer knew the horse better than anyone, so he wanted Burlew to remain training Morvich. Morvich would pass under the wire first in his last four outings of the year, winning the Saratoga Special, The Hopeful, the Eastern Shore Handicap at Havre de Grace, and the Pimlico Futurity. He had won 11 races and $11, 234, also earning 2YO Champion of the year.

Morvich spent the winter at Jamaica racetrack, enjoying lots of time in a paddock where he was turned out. It was during that winter when Block came to Burlew, telling him that he wanted to race in the Kentucky Derby.

From the Thoroughbred Record, while Morvich was wintering at Jamaica: “There has been a lot written about Morvich and his physical attribute. Much of it has been misleading. A close up of the son of Runnymede should be interesting to all who love a lion-hearted thoroughbred –one that struggles on when he is tired and will not accept defeat; one that possesses the speed of the wind and can display it over any kind of course.”

Knowing the difficulty of preparing a horse in New York over the winter for a spring campaign was recognized by Burlew; however he knew how to get Morvich ready, and was criticized sharply by the press and those who were watching. He worked the colt fast, race-time fast. Morvich would always go a bit faster than Burlew even wanted, although he did it easily. If he wanted to go faster, he just pulled off from the rider. The critics said that he was being worked too much, that he would be burned-out before the big race, or that he couldn’t stand up to it. The speed drills continued, with the colt working nine furlongs in 1:59 in his final work prior to shipping. Burlew knew the horse could get the distance, even though no one else believed that to be the case. Morvich and Burlew proved the nay-sayers wrong, the nearly black colt showing up in good order.

Upon his arrival at Churchill, hundreds of people showed up to watch the champ as he walked off his transport with his pony companion. In Louisville, Burlew was relentlessly hounded, by the media, the fans, and even his friends. The trainer kept up the appearance of being calm, even though he was extremely nervous. Aware that he had put all of the speed into the horse that he needed, his final work came just 3 days before the Derby, when the trainer sent his charge out to complete a mile and a quarter work in 2:08 1/5. The horse was ready, his trainer confident.

The May 13th Derby was a picture perfect day. In addition to the nearly 75,000 spectators that flooded the track, the Louisville oval was full of cinematographers from the Universal Film Company who had cameras located everywhere. They were filming the movie, “The Kentucky Derby”, with the 1922 Derby as the backdrop.

The crowd, apparently not paying much heed to the negative reports, or the fact that it was his first start of the year, made Morvich the favorite at odds of 6-5. Burlew saddled his colt and then made his way to the packed infield. It was there that it became evident that he was a bundle of nerves. He began pacing; growing more nervous that he was unable to see the start. My Play, a full brother to the great Man O’ War, led briefly at the start before quickly being taken over by Morvich.Jockey Albert Johnson kept the colt under a snug hold, even though they ran the first 1/8 of a mile in :11. With a ¼ mile to go, Burlew was finally able to see his charge, yelling out, “Let go of him Albert!” Almost simultaneously, Johnson loosed the reins and Morvich moved away from the field. It wasn’t because he heard the trainer yelling, it was just what Burlew had instructed him to do. Hand riding the colt, they flew under the wire a length and a half ahead of Bet Mosie, stopping the clock in 2:04 3/5. Morvich had made every post a winning one, while being only the second horse to win the Kentucky Derby undefeated, behind the great filly Regret. He was also the 13th and final horse to win the Derby as his first start as a 3YO. The connections were overjoyed with the victory. Block received $53,775 for the win, as well as a gold service set that was valued at $7,000. The happiest of the group was Burlew though. He was elated with the win, although he was more gratified with the thought that he had proved to the critics that he knew his horse and they didn’t.

It seemed that after the Derby, Morvich’s bad knees finally caught up with him. He would race four more times afterwards, the Derby his final victory. He would finish second twice, third once, and unplaced once in his four final races. After the losses, Morvich was retired to Kentucky to stand stud. He sired 110 winners and 12 stakes winners from 176 foals. He was eventually moved back to California to live out his remaining days.

From the AP: "Morvich, running with marvelous pace, made the turn into the stretch without losing a foot and straightened away for the run to the wire. Bet Mosie began to show a burst of speed, closing the gap between him and Morvich. Jockey Johnson, on Morvich, knew he was in for a race, and he laid his face down against the steaming neck, shouting words of encouragement to the horse, but never applying the whip. The colt apparently understood what was expected of him .increased his speed and crossed the wire two lengths ahead of Bet Mosie, while the great crowd shrieked his name from the stands. There was a roar from thousands of throats and another derby had passed into history. Owner Block rushed down to the judges’ stand to congratulate Jockey Johnson, followed by Fred Burlew, famous trainer of the colt, who tenderly patted his charge....Block could hardly reply. All he could say was: “It's the greatest day of my life. I feel too deeply to talk about it. My horse has won other races, but there is only one Kentucky Derby. Morvich could bring to me or to himself no greater honor.” "

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum