Rocking gently as a child's hobbyhorse, with his nose tucked down and his ears pricked forward, the elderly chestnut gelding trotted quickly around the muddy ring. "A perfect lady's horse," said his rider, Diane King. "He's the most comfortable horse in the world to ride."
King nudged the right rein. With his head dipping to the right, he swung rhythmically from a trot to a canter; halfway around the ring, he raised his back in a hump and playfully kicked his hind feet in the air. "Whooo!" yelled King. "He's feelin' good. Now watch him jump."
She steered him to a low fence and leaned forward on him. He vaulted it in perfect form and then nodded and snorted in the cold air as if to say, "Thank you very much."
He jogged to the center of the ring, and King patted him on his muscular neck, then reined him to a stop. A chilling wind whipped across the ring on the outskirts of North Lima, Ohio, but he paid no notice, dressed as he still was in his long winter coat. He stood still, the very picture of a happy old fox-hunting horse. "Well," said King, "when you look at him now, does he look like a horse who was leading Spectacular Bid down the backstretch in the Kentucky Derby?"
On May 5, 1979, the great gray colt Spectacular Bid thundered to the finish line to win the 105th running of the Derby. Nearly three lengths back came General Assembly, followed by, in rapid succession, the rest of the field. As a horse named Lot o' Gold crossed the wire to finish ninth, photographers jumped onto the track in a mad dash to the winner's circle. They failed to notice that one horse had yet to complete the race. Some 47 lengths behind the winner came a chestnut colt named Great Redeemer, with his jockey, Richard de Pass, facing the prospect of running over two photographers.
"They didn't realize anyone was that far back, and they ran in front of me," recalls de Pass. "I yelled, 'Hey!' They ducked and laughed when they saw me."
A lot of people were laughing at Great Redeemer in the spring of '79. Apart from Spectacular Bid, no colt drew more attention in the week leading up to the Derby. Unraced as a 2-year-old, winless in six starts before arriving at Churchill Downs, Great Redeemer was the ultimate maiden who did not belong in America's premier race. He and his owner, San Antonio radiologist James A. Mohamed, became the objects of scorn and ridicule throughout Bluegrass country.
As fate would have it, Great Redeemer drew post position number 2, next to the heavily favored Spectacular Bid in gate 3. In a story headlined MOHAMED BRINGS A MOLEHILL TO THE DERBY, one newspaper writer suggested that if Great Redeemer did anything to compromise Spectacular Bid's chances for victory—such as accidentally swerving into him out of the gate—"then Dr. J.A. Mohamed ought to be horsewhipped."
Great Redeemer did brush a horse named Golden Act, but Mohamed was spared the lash. In fact, at the quarter-mile mark, his colt was running fifth and leading Spectacular Bid by a head. That was as good as it would get. He plodded to the finish in 2:11⅘ 25 lengths behind the nearest competitor. The official Derby chart kissed him off with: "Great Redeemer stopped badly."
Unfortunately for Great Redeemer, he would suffer worse things than coming in last in the Kentucky Derby. Just four months after the race, Mohamed visited the colt in his stable area at Laurel racetrack in Maryland and discovered that he had a four-inch knife wound in his side. Four years later, trainer Bob King, Diane's husband, would arrange to buy Great Redeemer, who by then was half-starved, with open sores along his back, and consigned to a sandy, grassless field in Florida.
No horse in America is more acclaimed in a given year than the winner of the Kentucky Derby, no matter what he (or she) does thereafter. A blanket of red roses is thrown across the horse's withers, and mint juleps are raised. A large wooden plaque bearing his name is hung on a wall behind the Churchill Downs grandstand and, thus enshrined, the winner joins the immortals—Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew.
As quickly as the winner is embraced, the last-place finisher is dismissed—at least by the public. Some of those ultimate losers, however, have left behind good tales by which to be remembered. Among the more fabled of the Derby's last-place finishers was a speedball named Bombay Duck. Bombay Duck was flying down the backstretch at Churchill Downs in 1975, leading by three lengths, when someone in the infield threw a Frisbee over his head. "He shied at it," recalls his rider, Menotti Aristone. "Then I saw a guy cock back; he threw a beer can at me and hit the horse on the hipbone. Bombay Duck tried to bolt to the outside fence and threw in the towel."
Retired to stud, the Duck sired a number of stakes winners, and he still stands in New Jersey. Curiously, Bombay Duck's success in the breeding shed has become typical for last-place Derby finishers. In the past 10 years, seven of these horses have become active stallions: Golden Derby (1981), Total Departure ('83), Majestic Shore ('84), I Am The Game ('85), Groovy ('86), Demons Begone ('87) and Sea Trek ('88), who is at stud in Brazil.
It is the fate of most geldings to spend their lives knocking around like equine handymen, doing whatever odd job comes along. A gelding named Rancho Lejos was last in the 1970 Derby, a race in which a horse named Holy Land fell midway through the second turn and did not finish. Rancho Lejos eventually became a stable pony, then a trail horse in Kalispell, Mont., and died in California in 1986 of a staph infection after a stable accident. The other star-crossed entrant in that '70 Derby, Holy Land, survived his fall and lived to do some service as a stallion. One of his sons, out of a mare named Princeton Co-Ed, was Great Redeemer.
The colt was bred in Maryland, and in June 1978, Mohamed paid $2,100 for him at a sale for 2-year-olds. Mohamed had run into financial difficulties, and he perceived this colt as his way to fiscal recovery. "I thought he would redeem me," he said. "I had lost everything. I was looking for a horse to make a comeback."
Which is precisely what Great Redeemer proceeded to do. The horse was beaten by a total of 84½ lengths in those six starts before the Derby. However, in the one-mile Derby Trial, four days before the big race, he placed third. "I took this as a sign that things would go well for me," says Mohamed, who put up the $7,600 entry fee for the Derby. "They made me out as a fool. Or an eccentric, and I suppose I am."
After his trainer, Jim James, resigned on the eve of the Derby, refusing to saddle Great Redeemer—"I can't go through with it," James said—Mohamed flew to Louisville from San Antonio to saddle the colt himself. He felt the sting of derision the day he hit town. "Everyone stared me down like I was some strange creature," he says. As the author of a monthly racing newsletter and a book about the sport, Mohamed was viewed as a mere self-promoter. He saddled the colt, but he did not have a seat in the stands, so he never saw Spectacular Bid and the others blow past Great Redeemer down the backstretch.
"I was shell-shocked after three days at the Derby," Mohamed says. "The adverse publicity. The attacks. They called me a publicity-seeking crazy man. It was shattering. And then this."
Mohamed is still not sure what happened on that Maryland morning in September '79, when he went to check on Great Redeemer at Laurel. "The webbing on his stall was broken and blood was splattered all over it," he says. "Someone had slashed him on his left side. I'm a doctor. I know a knife cut when I see one." Even now Mohamed has no idea who cut the horse, except that it must have been a crazy person at the Hack.
That December, Mohamed sold Great Redeemer for $2,500. On June 7, 1980, the colt won a maiden race by five lengths at Calder in Florida. He lost three more races that year and then five in a row in 1981. He was idle throughout '82 as a 6-year-old.
The aforementioned Kings, who race a stable of cheap horses around West Virginia and Ohio, have made a living buying broken-down horses and nursing them back to the races. When Bob heard that Great Redeemer was for sale, he thought he might make an ideal restoration project and took a chance. When the horse arrived by van at Waterford Park, in West Virginia, Diane took one look at Great Redeemer and blurted to her husband, "Yuck! Why did you buy that horse? He's just a tall mess of bones."
"I bought him on the phone," Bob replied. "If I'd seen him, I would never have bought him."
Great Redeemer, by then a gelding, not only was weak and skinny and blighted with open sores, but also had a slightly bowed tendon in a front leg. The Kings went to work. They wormed him, treated the sores and nursed him with hay, oats, sweet feed, mashes and vitamin supplements. "It takes a horse's heart away to be abused like that," says Bob. "All I knew was that he had run in the Kentucky Derby, and I wanted to give him a chance."
This was the basis on which Bob had bought the horse for one of his owners, Ben Zytnick of Pittsburgh. "How many times do you get to own a horse who once ran in the Derby?" Bob asked him. Zytnick and his wife, Debbie, were intrigued enough to start paying the bills for Redeemer's rehabilitation.
The job was not easy. The horse was traumatized. "He hated the racetrack," says Bob. He won only one of 21 races in 1984, when he was an 8-year-old, but he picked up enough cash, $3,907, to pay for his feed. In '85, Diane started taking him fox hunting at a club outside Cleveland.
"On Wednesdays I would take him from the racetrack and hunt with him," she says. "He would gallop 20 miles some days, over fences and creeks. He loved it. A really good jumper. Then I'd bring him back to the racetrack and he'd race on Saturdays. It blew everybody's mind. They couldn't believe you could hunt a horse one day and race him a few days later. He had always shown great speed. But after I started hunting him that year, he started coming off the pace."
"Hunting changed his whole attitude," says Bob.
And it began to pay for Zytnick. On Sept. 2, 1985, in the third race at Thistledown, with Diane in the irons, Great Redeemer came charging from far off the pace to win by two lengths. Zytnick had $20 across the board, yielding him a profit of $1,554. "Boy, we were happy," he says.
But it was Great Redeemer's last victory on the track. Shortly afterward, Diane began grooming him as a full-time fox hunter and show horse. In the five years since his retirement from racing, Diane says, he has won more than 100 blue ribbons in shows.
Now 15, Great Redeemer is living the good life. Diane caters to his every taste. "What really turns him on is carrots," she says. "I plant two long rows for him every year. He shows all summer and hunts all fall. In the winter, I take him to Florida. Imagine that. He vacations in the sun."
She leads her happy horse out of the riding ring and guides him to his comfortable stall. "You know," she says, "I usually change a horse's name when I make one into a hunter. But I decided not to change his. He'll always be Great Redeemer. I think any horse who runs in the Kentucky Derby should keep his name."
Even if he finishes last.