Can Kentucky Derby Contender Verrazano Break the Oldest Curse in Sports?

The stadium scene.
May 2 2013 2:24 PM

The Oldest Curse in Sports

Can Verrazano break the Kentucky Derby’s Curse of Apollo?

Kentucky Derby hopeful Verrazano gallops on the track with exercise rider Humberto Zamora during early morning workouts at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, May 1, 2013.
Verrazano gallops on the track with exercise rider Humberto Zamora during early morning workouts at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 1, 2013.

Photo by John Sommers II/Reuters

In that wet spring of 1882, Runnymede was the fastest 3-year-old in America. The Kentucky Derby was only in its eighth year and not yet a substantial draw on the American horse-racing circuit. As such, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the mustachioed booster who had conceived the race as an equine Mardi Gras that would make Louisville, Ky., the equal of any river city, had to beg the colt’s owners to ship their prize possession west. Runnymede’s owners, the New York meatpacking millionaires the Dwyer brothers, loved to gamble, so they agreed on the condition that they could also ship in their own Manhattan bookmakers. Clark had imported pari-mutuel betting machines from France, just to keep crooked bookies away from his track. But if Clark had to tolerate bookies to get Runnymede, he would tolerate bookies.

On a rainy Derby day, the bookmakers made Runnymede the 4-5 favorite. He ran like a favorite for most of the race, twice escaping from behind running roadblocks of horses, and making up six lengths in the stretch. With 400 yards to go in the mile-and-a-half race, Runnymede took the lead. But behind him, daredevil African-American jockey Babe Hurd—black riders were actually fairly common in the post-bellum South—was weaving his mount, Apollo, between tiring horses. Two hundred yards from the wire, Apollo drew nose-to-nose with Runnymede, then dug through the mud to win by half a body length.

Accounts of the race have the bookies offering Apollo at anywhere from 10-1 to 82-1. He wasn’t considered a contender because he hadn’t started racing until a few months earlier, winning purses in Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn.; and New Orleans. So unexpected was a rookie horse’s victory that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote of Apollo, “He was hardly thought of before the race and was given but very scanty attention by the betting ring.”

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Apollo and Runnymede raced again six days after the Derby. This time, Runnymede won by 10 lengths. Six years later, a Pittsburgh gambler named Capt. Sam Brown claimed the race had been fixed to spare bookmakers from making ruinous payouts on the popular Runnymede—exactly what Clark had feared. But whether he did it honestly or not, Apollo achieved a feat that has never been repeated: Since 1882, every horse that has won the Kentucky Derby started its racing career as a 2-year-old. In the past 57 years, 49 horses that debuted as 3-year-olds have tried and failed to win at Churchill Downs. It’s known as the Curse of Apollo, and it’s the oldest curse in American sports, predating the Curse of the Billy Goat—the Chicago Cubs’ pennant drought—by 63 years. (It also predates the Cubs’ World Series drought by 26 years, but who’s counting?)

Late last fall, the curse was on owner Bryan Sullivan’s mind. As a 2-year-old, his promising colt Verrazano had suffered shin problems that delayed his debut at the track. By the first week of December, though, Verrazano was training well, and Sullivan sat down with trainer Todd Pletcher to discuss the horse’s maiden race. At first, they considered a six-furlong sprint, scheduled for Dec. 19. But Pletcher thought Verrazano needed more practice bursting from the starting gate, and since he had only four months to build up to a mile-and-a-quarter—a tight schedule for a Derby horse—Pletcher wanted him to start at seven furlongs (seven-eighths of a mile).

“OK, but there’s no more races until the first week of January,” Sullivan said. “I just want to mention that to you. You know what everybody’s going to say.”

“Is 24 hours really going to make a difference?” Sullivan says Pletcher asked him.

Although thoroughbreds are foaled in late winter and early spring, their birthdays are observed on Jan. 1. As a consequence, when Verrazano stepped into the gate on New Year’s Day at Gulfstream Park, he was a 3-year-old. Verrazano won his maiden race (which turned out to be 6 ½ furlongs). Then he won at a mile, by such a wide margin that the race caller crowed, “He’s gonna win this one from Brooklyn to Staten Island.” Then he won the Tampa Bay Derby. And then Aqueduct Racetrack’s Wood Memorial, whose champions have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby 11 times. The Churchill Downs oddsmaker now lists him at 4-1 on the morning line, meaning he could be the second straight cursed horse to go off as the favorite.

Last year’s favorite, Bodemeister, went out so fast he couldn’t hold off I’ll Have Another in the stretch—a rookie mistake compounded by a rookie's inability to go the distance. Is that confirmation that the curse is real? Would Bodemeister have won the Derby had he not been so green?

You can’t get two handicappers to agree on anything. If you could, there’d be no point to playing the horses—every winner would pay $2.10. Andrew Beyer is the Washington Post columnist who used his Harvard English degree to revolutionize handicapping by inventing the Beyer Speed Figure. Steve Davidowitz, author of Betting Thoroughbreds and editor of GradeOneRacing.com, has been Beyer’s racetrack buddy ever since they met in the paddock at Saratoga in the 1970s. Beyer thinks the Curse of Apollo is real—he believes that horses who don’t start racing until January lack the preparation time of peers who began the previous summer or fall. Davidowitz thinks that’s booshwah.