The three-eighths Pole Loomed ahead midway through the turn for home, glistening white and marking a point just 660 yards from the wire, and now jockey Gary Stevens saw it rushing toward him. That pole was the signal, the point at which he would begin to apply the final cruncher that he hoped would bust open Saturday's 114th running of the Kentucky Derby and lead him into the winner's circle. Beneath him was the filly Winning Colors, her gray mane flying in the wind and her feet skipping over the Churchill Downs oval as she raced boldly on the lead. Leaving the backstretch, Stevens had sensed the horses immediately behind him pressing hard to cut into his four-length lead; he had let the reins out a notch. Responding instantly, the filly had picked up the beat and had held her advantage.
Now it was time. As the three-eighths pole flashed past, Stevens chirped to Winning Colors. That was all she needed. Stevens felt the surge, as if she were kicking into another gear. Right behind her, Proper Reality, Seeking the Gold and Private Terms were straining just to keep within reach as the filly bounded off the final bend, still nearly four lengths up, and straightened out for the 400-yard run to the wire.
Stevens switched the stick to his left hand. Sweeping past the quarter pole, he reached back and lashed the filly once on the flank. She dug in again. Private Terms, at $3.40 to $1 the slight favorite over Winning Colors, came up empty at the top of the lane and began drifting back. Seeking the Gold continued to give chase, and Proper Reality hung on tenaciously through the upper stretch—but neither could gain a step.
Winning Colors came to the eighth pole in front by 3½ lengths and looked as if she were going to open daylight, when suddenly Forty Niner, last year's 2-year-old champion colt, rushed forward with a move that had begun some six lengths back of the leader. What happened in those final 12 seconds made for one of the most rousing climaxes in the modern history of the Derby—a finish that found the filly's jockey doing a desperate huck-a-buck to keep her in front, her trainer chanting and screaming at a television set beneath the grandstand, and her owner leaping up and down as if on hot coals.
May 15, 1988
This had been Winning Colors' Derby long before the start; she had been the centerpiece of this race ever since she towroped eight of California's 3-year-old colts in the April 9 Santa Anita Derby, winning wire-to-wire by 7½ lengths. Should she win at Churchill Downs, she would be just the third filly in history—after Regret (1915) and Genuine Risk (1980)—to win America's most famous horse race. And she came to town in the company of three Kentucky Derby maidens. Stevens had never won the race. Her owner, Eugene V. Klein, had won just about everything but the Derby since he got into the horse racing business six years ago. And her trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, perennially the nation's most successful thoroughbred conditioner, had gone 0 for 12 in the Derby in seven years of trying.
Lukas was particularly desperate "to get the Derby monkey off my back," as he once put it. A triumph at Churchill Downs had become his grand obsession. When the filly won at Santa Anita, flashing her dazzling speed, Lukas began telling all who would listen that she was the one who would break the spell and win the roses for him. Two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Lukas was favorably comparing her style to that of Lady's Secret, the brilliant filly he had trained to become the top money-winning female runner of all time.
"Like Lady's Secret, this filly throws you off your game plan," Lukas said of Winning Colors. "If you try to run with her, you won't stay the distance; if you don't run with her, you'll never catch her. Either way, you're dead."
Not everyone was convinced. The knock against her triumph in the Santa Anita Derby was that she got loose on the lead over a racing surface that had favored speed horses all winter. Racing unchallenged, with no opponent venturing to put any serious pressure on her, Winning Colors clicked off rapid-fire fractions and won at her pleasure. In the aftermath, Lukas heard the naysayers. "All I can say is, 'Good luck to all of them!' " he snapped.
Lukas had the fastest gun in Louisville, to be sure, and in the days leading up to the race, the central question was often repeated: Who is going to run early with Winning Colors? Most horsemen were looking to Forty Niner, trained by Hall of Famer Woody Stephens, to test Winning Colors early and hard. In fact, at a trainers' dinner on the Tuesday before the race, Charlie Whittingham, conditioner of the stretch-running Lively One, took the microphone and said, to laughter, "If Woody doesn't go with her, he's on the list. I'm not going to say what list here, but he's on the list."
Such thinking out loud was more wishful than not, as things turned out, because Stephens had no intention of sacrificing his colt on the altar of pace, despite his promises to the contrary. "She's not gonna get loose, don't worry about it," Stephens said. "If I turn her loose, I might as well go on home."
In fact, in a field composed largely of stretch-runners—including Risen Star, Private Terms and Brian's Time—Winning Colors really had this bunch at her mercy. Lukas's son, Jeff, whom the father credits with making the filly what she is today, told jockey Stevens in the saddling paddock before the race, "If someone gets crazy and wants to go, let 'em go. I'm confident she'll relax for you behind horses."
Wayne Lukas told Stevens to let her roll to the lead, as usual, but to wait until that three-eighths pole to set the hook: "If you've got a clear lead at the three-eighths and you've got a lot of horse, just put her in gear and go."
Lukas had read the race just right. The filly broke sharply out of Post 11, and in half a dozen strides she was in front. A big, leggy, free-running roan, she has a decidedly exuberant way of running that says "catch me if you can." No one really tried. From Post 17 on the far outside, jockey Pat Day steered Forty Niner cautiously inside. He chased the filly through her first quarter mile in 23 seconds, a respectable but not a gusty opener; Winning Colors appeared to be having the carefree fun of a kid leading a class to recess.
"She came away from the gate very relaxed," Stevens said. "It was just a nice, natural stride for her. She pretty much got things her own way all the way around there. That's the great thing about her. With the speed she's got, she's gonna get things her own way more times than not."
Day dropped Forty Niner a length behind going into the clubhouse turn and then, wanting no part of the filly early, let her go. Zip! Winning Colors opened two, then three lengths. Like most of the other jockeys in the hunt, Day was hoping that long shots Purdue King or Din's Dancer would go after her, but they never got close. "I could have pressed her around the first turn," said Day, "but I felt like it would have been suicidal if I had asked my colt to run to her. I guarantee I wouldn't have been there at the finish."
So there she was, hitting the back-stretch all by herself, with no one willing to play the fool by running at her. Stevens hit cruise control down the backside, racing through a half mile in an easy: 46[4/5] while stretching the lead to almost four lengths. "I didn't plan on letting her steal off that far," said Day, "but that filly just sprinted away from me."
Watching his horse run ahead alone, Wayne Lukas was ecstatic. After saddling Winning Colors, Lukas had ducked into the racing secretary's office to watch the Derby on television, and as the horses tooled down the backstretch, he was loudly exhorting his filly to switch her lead from left to right, to reduce the fatigue in her legs.
"Switch your leads, baby!" Lukas yelled at the screen. Obliging, his horse suddenly changed stride. Klein, meanwhile, was up in the box seats, bouncing and hollering. Winning Colors dashed to the half-mile pole alone, through six furlongs in a tepid 1:11[2/5]. Then Stevens saw the three-eighths pole and chirped. The filly raced through that fourth quarter in a sharp :24[3/5]. That was why no one could catch her, and that was where and how she won the Derby.
After waiting so long to give serious pursuit, coming off the turn for home Day finally began beating a tattoo on Forty Niner's rump, lefthanded. Inside the 16th pole, about 100 yards out, the filly began to tire; that sustained burst of speed through the fourth quarter left her wobbling in the final yards. She raced the last quarter in :26⅕ waltz time, while Stevens whipped lefthanded, then scrubbed and pushed on her neck, then whipped again. He did everything but jump off. Leg-weary, Winning Colors was shortening stride and fading. Forty Niner cut the lead to three-quarters of a length, then half a length, then a neck.
Wayne Lukas stood pleading beneath the TV set. "Come on, Gary!" he yelled, his voice rising as the horses raced for the finish. "Stay with them, Gary! Come on! Gary, Gary, Gary, Gary, Gary!"
Winning Colors hit the wire a diminishing neck in front of Forty Niner, and Lukas jubilantly pumped an arm in the air. In 2:02⅕ the filly had erased seven years of disappointment for Lukas. "My turn!" he yelled. "My turn!" Outside the office, as Lukas dashed through the door, Jeff spotted his father and grabbed him. "We won it!" said the son.
Klein appeared dazed as he made his way through the crowds, his plaid sport coat and shirt soaked with perspiration. At one point, a group began chanting, "Eu-GENE! Eu-GENE!" He leaned to his wife, Joyce, and whispered, "That's got to be the biggest thrill in a man's life—to win the Kentucky Derby!"
Afterward Klein went from party to interview to party like a man in a trance. "I think I'm a little numb," he said. "I have no feeling of euphoria. I truly believed we were going to win the race, but now that we've done it, I'm not sure I believe it. I'm not quite with it. I won't sleep much tonight. At midnight, my eyes will be wide open, staring at the ceiling."
Klein may not have been euphoric yet, but another Team Lukas bunch surely was. Last February some of his grooms, hotwalkers and exercise riders in California had scraped together $2,000 in cash and bet it all in the Tijuana winter book on Winning Colors to take the Kentucky Derby. The price on the little-known filly: 100-1. So the gang back home won $200,000. "I don't know how many of them will show up for work in the morning," Lukas said.
Winning Colors also earned a $611,200 purse on Saturday, after Klein reportedly turned down an offer of $6 million to $7 million before the race. He did not deny the reports, saying only, "I think she's worth the $575,000 I paid for her. That's really not important. All I know is, she won the first leg. On to Pimlico!"
Given the way she runs, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown—the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 21—should be an easier conquest for the filly. Pimlico, with its tighter turns, tends to favor speed horses, and the Preakness is 110 yards shorter than the Derby. Were she to win, Winning Colors would then enter the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes as the only filly in history to arrive at Belmont with a chance to sweep the Triple Crown.
"Winning the Kentucky Derby, she's part of history now," said Klein. In the next five weeks, much bigger history may be made.
"The final 12 seconds made for one of the most rousing climaxes in Derby history."