Upsets are the norm at Kentucky Derby

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When talking about the Kentucky Derby, it’s safe to state that upsets abound.

This result occurs with such frequency that a statistical upset takes place whenever the favorite wins. If this appears to be a non sequitur, it is reality.

Rather dramatic examples of unexpected Derby victories over the past decade include Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (’09), each paying 50-1. The last two winners – Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another – at 20-1 and 15-1, respectively, also were upsets. Only four of the past 33 Kentucky Derbies have been won by the betting favorite.

That 12 percent success rate lies far below the generally accepted estimate that, the betting favorite wins one out of every three horse races in North America.

The origin of usage of the word “upset” to describe the result of a sporting event most likely came into common usage within a few years of what took place on Aug. 13, 1919 in a race at Saratoga. It’s not that the defeat of a 55 cents on the dollar odds-on favorite by an 8-1 shot was unprecedented at the time or that, although rare, it hasn’t happened since.

The significance was not immediately recognized. More than a year later, the full impact of the result of that race – the Sanford Memorial – was understood by students of the thoroughbred horse and its emphasis has only increased over the years as the stature of the horse described by his groom as “the mostest hoss” has endured.

That “hoss” was Man o’ War, generally recognized more than 90 years after the fact as the greatest thoroughbred ever to race on American soil. And it was in the Sanford Memorial that the great horse suffered his lone defeat in 21 career starts. The name of the winner was Upset.

Historically, it would be difficult to identify a greater upset in the Kentucky Derby than the one that took place 60 years ago when Native Dancer suffered his lone career setback, falling a head short of catching longshot Dark Star at the finish. It has been popular to attribute that result to some interference the Dancer experienced on the first turn, supposedly caused by Money Broker.

A much more likely explanation is simply that Native Dancer was a “short” horse on May 2, 1953. Troubled with ankle problems throughout his career, Alfred Vanderbilt’s spectacular gray did not make his first start as a 3-year-old until two weeks before the Derby, when he won a division of the one-mile Gotham Stakes. Time pressure being heavy and his foundation being light, trainer Bill Winfrey had no alternative but to run the Dancer back in the nine-furlong Wood Memorial the following Saturday.

Native Dancer won easily, but went to the post in Louisville without a break, racing on a third consecutive weekend.

Saturday, it is unlikely that the horde of spectators at Churchill Downs and the millions watching on television will see another Man o’ War or Native Dancer. But an upset?

You can bet on it.


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