Mystik Dan, Hernandez, McPeek ride into history

Churchill Downs press release and photos (above: Coady Media Group photo by John Gallagher)

Saturday’s 150th Kentucky Derby (G1) delivered one of the most spine-tingling finishes in history, as the 18-1 shot Mystik Dan rode the rail and gamely held off the late charges of Sierra Leone and Forever Young in a head-bobbing result.

So close was the margin in the $5 million race that it took several minutes for the order of finish to be posted, capping a dream weekend at Churchill Downs for connections.

Trainer Kenny McPeek and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. combined to win their first Derby, one day after teaming up to win their first Kentucky Oaks (G1) on Friday with Thorpedo Anna.

Mystik Dan is a homebred for Brent Gasaway’s 4G Racing, Lance Gasaway, and Daniel Hamby III. Scott Hamby’s Valley View Farm also belongs to his ownership group. Their mare, Ma’am, was also trained for part of her career by McPeek, who recommended the mating with Goldencents — and got a Derby winner. Read more on his pedigree fun facts here.

Mystik Dan completed 1 1/4 miles in 2:03.34 and paid $39.22.

Runner-up Sierra Leone just edged Forever Young, who came agonizingly close to giving Japan a breakthrough Kentucky Derby win. Catching Freedom finished fourth, and Japan’s other runner, T O Password, rounded out the top five.

Fierceness, the 3-1 favorite, chased the hot early pace before tiring to 15th.

Mystik Dan broke alertly from post 3, and Hernandez quickly secured a rail spot several lengths off the testing pace. Up front, Track Phantom was whizzing along pressed by Just Steel, with Fierceness attending in an outside tracking position.

As the leaders began to tire turning for home, Mystik Dan was poised right behind them. A seam opened up on the rail, and the colt was game to take it. Hernandez sent him through to strike the front, and by saving every inch of ground, he established a decisive advantage.

Forever Young, the 6-1 third choice, found himself farther off the pace after not breaking well. The hitherto undefeated colt managed to recover and rally on the outside. Sierra Leone, the 9-2 second choice, dropped near the back of the pack early as expected, and had to swing out even wider to launch his bid.

With Sierra Leone leaning on Forever Young as they closed in tandem, their momentum might have been affected. Mystik Dan’s stride was shortening, but he kept finding enough to hold on by a nose. Sierra Leone’s nose was just in front of Forever Young’s in an epic finish.

Official photo finish of the 150th Kentucky Derby (Courtesy of Churchill Downs)

Following the top three were Catching Freedom, T O Password, Resilience, Stronghold, Honor Marie, Endlessly, Dornoch, Track Phantom, West Saratoga, Domestic Product, Epic Ride, Fierceness, Society Man, Just Steel, Grand Mo the First, Catalytic and Just a Touch.

Mystik Dan has now bankrolled $3,741,360 from a record of 7-3-1-1. Most recently a troubled third in the Arkansas Derby (G1), he had previously romped in the Southwest (G3) at a muddy Oaklawn Park. McPeek had emphasized that Mystik Dan was not just an off-track enthusiast, pointing to his 7 3/4-length maiden romp on a fast track at Churchill last November.

McPeek’s best previous Derby result was with Tejano Run, runner-up to Thunder Gulch in 1995. Now he’s the first trainer to turn the Oaks/Derby double in the same year since Hall of Famer Ben Jones in 1952, with the filly Real Delight and Hill Gail, respectively.

Jones, who trained for the iconic Calumet Farm, also achieved the double in 1949 with the filly Wistful and Ponder. The only other trainer to do so was ‘Derby Dick’ Thompson in 1933, with Brokers Tip prevailing in the ‘Fighting Finish’ Derby before Barn Swallow followed up two weeks later in the Oaks.

The doubles in 1933 and 1952 featured the same jockeys as well, Don Meade aboard the Thompson pair and the great Eddie Arcaro on the Jones duo. Hernandez was accomplishing a rare feat in joining them.

The five other jockeys to sweep the Oaks and Derby did so for different trainers — the legendary Isaac Murphy (1884), Bill Boland (1950), Don Brumfield (1966), Jerry Bailey (1993), and most recently Calvin Borel (2009). After riding Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra in the Oaks, Borel rode the rail aboard the 50-1 Mine That Bird in the Derby.

Mystik Dan draped in the garland of roses (Photo by Horsephotos/Getty Images)

Given Borel’s influence on fellow Louisiana native Hernandez, no wonder he displayed rail-skimming artistry in an historic Kentucky Derby.

‘As a young kid out of Louisiana,’ Hernandez said, ‘I got the privilege of sitting in the same corner as Calvin Borel. So I got to watch him ride those Derbies all those years.

‘And today, with Mystik Dan being in the three‑hole, I watched a couple of his rides there between the Super Saver (2010) and Mine That Bird. I said: You know what? We’re going to roll the dice.’

Co-owner/breeder Daniel Hamby named the colt in honor of his father, Dan, once the proprietor of Mystik Tape.

Lance Gasaway was also thinking of his father, Clint, who passed away exactly a year ago.

‘To me, this is for him,’ Gasaway said. ‘And Dad would have loved it. He loved the game.

‘Just pinching myself. You just wonder if this is real. You just won the biggest horse race in America.

‘I mean, who would have ever dreamed that a little horse Ma’am, a little filly we had, and run her, and breed her to a $10,000 stud fee, and win the Kentucky Derby. It’s just really surreal.

‘We feel like we are just ordinary people,’ Sharilyn Gasaway said, ‘and we have got just an amazing horse that God gave us.’

Jennie Rees is a communications and advocacy specialist in the horse industry who spent 32 years covering horse racing for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal before taking a corporate buyout. In addition to handling communications for the Kentucky HBPA, Rees is Kentucky Downs’ publicity director, manages in-season racing publicity for Ellis Park and serves as a consultant to the National HBPA. Other projects include the Preakness Stakes, Indiana Grand’s Indiana Derby Week and work for various HBPA affiliates and horsemen’s associations.