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.
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."