Commentary

Looking outside the winner's circle

Remembering some of those who finished second in the Kentucky Derby

Updated: March 20, 2014, 4:21 PM ET
By Steve Davidowitz | Special to ESPN.com

Quick Question: Who finished second to Orb in last year's Kentucky Derby?

Quick Answer: I seriously doubt you have any clue.

Frankly, the vast majority of people -- including ardent racing fans -- do not know the answer to that question any better than they may remember who was second a decade ago.

Everybody loves the Derby winner but once the Triple Crown races are in the books, few will remember the horse that did not get the blanket of roses in the Churchill Downs winner's circle. For the record, longshot Golden Soul was second to Orb last year and Lion Heart was second to Smarty Jones a decade ago.

This lack of respect for the second place finisher is a commonly shared curse in the world of sports. For a few quick examples, I doubt you can name the team that finished second in the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament. Or, the team that finished second best in the 2012 World Series.

In horse racing, we praise to the skies the horse who wins the Kentucky Derby. But after a few weeks or months, most people will have a hard time remembering who almost won the world's most famous race. This despite the fact that there have been countless Derbies when the horse who did finish second was better than the winner, or at least deserved as much praise.

In a previous column that focused mostly on the biggest flops in Derby history, I pointed out that Hall of Fame horses Native Dancer and Easy Goer finished second in the 1953 and '89 Derbies respectively. But the list of truly notable second place finishers in the Kentucky Derby goes much deeper than that.

Going back to Native Dancer's notorious second, I found more than two dozen top-notch second place finishers who deserved as much applause and credit for their careers as the horses whose names were indelibly painted on the hallowed walls of Churchill Downs.

For the sake of brevity, I have pared down my list to the 10 best Derby "losers" who deserve to be remembered forever. Perhaps you have a horse from your own list who deserved more credit than received.

Native Dancer (1953): The "grey ghost" won 21 of 22 career races losing only the Derby to longshot Dark Star who tried to do it again in the Preakness, but suffered an injury in the contest and was retired.

Nashua (1955): One of the all-time greats, he lost to Swaps in the Derby, then beat Swaps in a famous match race at Arlington Park later that summer. Nashua, not Swaps, was voted Horse of the Year.

Gallant Man (1957): Narrowly lost the Derby to Iron Liege when Bill Shoemaker infamously misjudged the finish line, standing up in the saddle five strides from the wire. Five weeks later, Gallant Man won the Belmont Stakes setting a track record that would stand until Secretariat broke it in 1973. Gallant Man also won the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup and unlike Iron Liege, is a member of racing's Hall of Fame.

Sword Dancer (1959): Lost to Tomy Lee (who?), but won the Belmont Stakes, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup en route to Horse of the Year. He too is a member of racing's Hall of Fame.

Arts and Letters (1969): No one will ever convince me that this horse was better than Derby-Preakness winner Majestic Prince who was ill when he lost the Belmont Stakes in his final career race. But Arts and Letters did win the Belmont Stakes, the Met Mile, the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup to be named Horse of the Year. Majestic Prince, however, was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1988, Arts and Letters six years later in '94.

Sham (1973): Won the Santa Anita Derby like a superstar and broke the existing track records in the Derby and Preakness when second in both races. It was Sham's unfortunate fate that he was being defeated by the immortal Secretariat who set the decisive track records in all three Triple Crown races.

Alydar (1978): Finished a close second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races as part of the greatest rivalry in racing history. Alydar probably is the best remembered second place finisher in Derby history. Both Affirmed and Alydar are in the Hall of Fame.

Forty Niner (1988): Just missed catching D. Wayne Lukas' fast filly Winning Colors. While Forty Niner never beat that filly or the eventual top 3-year-old, Risen Star, who won the Preakness and Belmont, this Woody Stephens-trained colt ran strongly in most of his races, winning 11 of 19, with five seconds. Somewhat forgotten through the passage of time, Forty Niner deserves to be remembered for his game effort in this Derby as well as his hard-fought wins in the Haskell Invitational and Travers Stakes three months later.

Easy Goer (1989): The powerfully built son of Alydar lost the first two legs of the Triple Crown to Sunday Silence but soundly defeated that rival in the Belmont Stakes. While Easy Goer did lose the Breeders' Cup Classic to Sunday Silence, both of these great horses were deservedly voted into the Hall of Fame.

Eight Belles (2008): The best performance by a filly in the Kentucky Derby since Winning Colors won in 1988. Eight Belles did lose to Big Brown in this Derby, but she is far from having been forgotten. Eight Belles is indelibly remembered for breaking down after the finish and helping to inspire needed changes to improve horse safety. Among the changes, horses are more rigorously inspected before each Triple Crown race for possible bone issues and there are stronger pre- and post-race drug testing regimens throughout the country to prevent or limit similar tragedies.

This year of course, we are having our usual difficult time trying to figure out who will win the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, May 3. At the same time, it will be interesting to see if the horse who finishes second will be quickly forgotten as so many have, so often. Or, will he get the praise and applause of the 10 above who hardly were "losers" in America's most famous race?

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