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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 2:11[4/5], 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.