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.