How filly Genuine Risk galloped into Derby history
Posted: Friday May 5, 2006 11:43AM; Updated: Thursday May 18, 2006 4:19PM
A 13-1 long shot, Genuine Risk shocked the horse racing world by winning the 1980 Kentucky Derby with the ninth-fastest time ever.
By Aimee Crawford, SI.com
Decades before Annika, Danica or Michelle became household names, a female competitor proved she could compete with the guys.
Twenty-six years ago this week, Genuine Risk galloped her way into history when she became the second filly -- and first in 65 years -- to win the Kentucky Derby. Hailed as "America's Sweetheart," she competed against the best males of her sport and won its most cherished prize.
Her unprecedented run through the 1980 Triple Crown -- Genuine Risk remains the only female horse to finish in the money in all three races -- is still remembered fondly by racing fans. Now 29, the oldest living Derby winner is gracefully grazing away in her golden years at Newstead Farm in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains. Her auburn mane is flecked with gray, and she limps slightly because of an arthritic left knee. But a distinctive white blaze still marks one of the most famous faces in racing.
The filly's feminine, fine-boned features and flashy chestnut coat -- trainer LeRoy Jolley told Sports Illustrated's William Nack in 1980 that his horse was "more like Candace Bergen than Billie Jean King" -- caused many to write her off as too delicate to challenge the boys. But each time she made her signature move in the stretch, ears pinned back and nostrils flaring, Genuine Risk showed she was as competitive as any colt.
"The best filly that I ever saw was Ruffian," says Nack, who has covered horse racing for 35 years. "But Genuine Risk was absolutely one of the greatest too. She was no fluke, no dainty little thing who beat bad colts. She was tough. She wasn't going to let those rough stud horses push her around."
Her thrilling Derby win -- a 13-1 long shot, she took a late lead and held off the charging Rumbo to win by a length -- earned her the adulation of millions and helped bring a generation of female fans to the sport. She was celebrated as an equine embodiment of the Equal Rights Amendment. Newspaper headlines trumpeted a "triumph for women's lib." She graced SI's cover under the headline "The Lady Is a Champ." And Harper's Bazaar named her one of the top female achievers of the year.
Diamond in the Stable
Genuine Risk's run to glory almost never happened. In 1978, Diana and BertFirestone brought their 14-year-old son, Matt, an aspiring horseman himself, to a yearling sale. Minutes before the close of the sale, Matt spotted a sharp-looking filly with impressive bloodlines that his parents had overlooked.
"Can I bid on her?" he asked. Bert told him he could go as high as $35,000. A few minutes later the daughter of Exclusive Native and Virtuous, who had been sired by 1957 Belmont Stakes winner Gallant Man, was theirs for the relatively modest price of $32,000.
"When we bought her, Matt said, 'Wouldn't it be great if she could win the Derby?''' says Bert Firestone. "And I said, 'Let's wait and see if she can win her maiden first.'"