Blinkers Off Tall tales from the Derby's past
Great Redeemer, the Knife at the Gunfight
… A Yiddish word applied to a man who kills his mother and father and throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.
… The life, times and nerve of Dr. James A. Mohamed
It was the year of Spectacular Bid, which is the way a lot of Kentuckians tell time on their personal calendars. He had won 10 straight races across two years as he headed into the 1979 Kentucky Derby.
Months before the race, Dr. James A. Mohamed, a radiologist out of San Antonio, Tex., placed a strange ad in several thoroughbred publications. Simply worded, it trumpeted the brash claim that Spectacular Bid could not possibly win the Kentucky Derby or any other Triple Crown race. In his own part-time publication he also offered to tell anyone who would write to him exactly why.
A lot of people did.
So many people wrote, in fact, that he began to believe what he had written. Since he actually owned a 3-year old, named Great Redeemer, he reasoned, why couldn’t he win?
And so begins a tale whose moral stands the test of time:
Whether it’s in a bar or on a race track, never take a knife to a gunfight.
A week before the Derby, a trainer actually named James James stopped by to see Louis Dolan, the racing secretary at Churchill Downs. He had been there before on the same mission.
Old Double J told him in much the same tone of voice as the guy playing the warden used when telling Jimmy Cagney the governor is taking a long lunch and might not get back in time to sign your pardon:
“Uh … uh … Mr. Dolan, I’m sorry to tell you this but the man still wants to put his horse in the Kentucky Derby.'”
“Uh, huh,” Louis Dolan said.
Dolan was sitting on what appeared to be a nice, neat nine-horse field. He had two super horses, a reasonable consort of pretenders and a few confirmed losers who were well-behaved enough not to make any problems.
He also knew that old Double J trained Dr. Mohamed’s horse, a creature whose sole redeeming feature was that he had yet to bite either man or beast during any post parade.
Dolan needed Great Redeemer in the Derby field about as much as Rudolph Nureyev needed a case of athlete’s foot.
“Well, why don’t we just wait and see?” Dolan said. “You talk to the man and explain things. Let’s give him some time to be a little reasonable. After all, the colt has never won a race. These things generally have a way of working out.”
As old Double J left the office, a funny thing happened at Churchill Downs. The earth shook, the heavens trembled and a baby monsoon beat horses bound for morning workouts by three furlongs.
Who says the Lord doesn’t try to get our attention?
That morning, shortly before final entries and the draw for post positions began, Mr. Dolan’s telephone rang. It was James James and the immediate reaction that rocked the joint wasn’t thunder. It was the sound of James James’ voice dropping the other shoe:
“The man is determined to run. I don’t know what else I can do.”
“Call him back,” Dolan said, getting panicky. “Make another try to talk him out of this. PLEASE. Try to use logic.”
Double J had some chance. Great Redeemer had raced six times and lost six, and that was before he ran in the Derby Trial at Churchill, where he finished third in a field that might have had difficulty beating two large German shepherds.
In the previous six outings, he had been beaten by a combined total of a modest 84 1/2 lengths and once went off at a price of nearly 92-1 in a more-or-less live field of five horses.
“I cannot in all conscience saddle that horse for the Derby,” James James said when he called back 20 minutes later. “I have resigned as the trainer of Great Redeemer.”
What followed is out of Abbot and Costello by way of Laurel and Hardy.
“You have to have a licensed trainer,” the head steward said when he called Dr. Mohamed. “I know,” was the answer. “I am licensed in two states. I will train him.”
Mohamed was told if he could produce a valid license he would be licensed in Kentucky. That raised an interesting point. For a time it appeared as though Great Redeemer might get to the finish line before Dr. Mohamed got to Louisville. With half the Free World trying to get to Churchill Downs for the race, the doctor picked up the phone and attempted to get a plane reservation.
He got one.
No trainer of a Kentucky Derby horse — winner or loser — has ever trained from the standby line at an airport, but Dr. Mohamed was not easily discouraged.
When reached by phone in San Antonio, he said, “Tell them not to worry. I’ll be there, and I’m really not even angry at James James for quitting. I understand. He just didn’t have enough faith.”
“Well, there are 999 ways to lose the Derby. Maybe we just found another.”Meantime, yet another small matter remained. No Kentucky Derby colt — winner or loser — ever had entered the starting gate without a jockey. Through the good offices of James James, Dr. Mohamed was put in touch with a jockey’s agent named Hee Haw Alby.
Mr. Alby represented a rider named Richard DePass. When Alby called, Richard was sick in bed. “You’re in the Derby,” Hee Haw said. “You will ride Great Redeemer.”
“Uh huh,” DePass said and went back to sleep.
“My jockey will ride anything,” Hee Haw told a reporter.
When Grover “Buddy” Delp, who trained Spectacular Bid, heard the details unfolding, he said “Well, there are 999 ways to lose the Derby. Maybe we just found another.”
Delp may have been referring to genetics. Great Redeemer’s daddy, Holy Land, who fell down in the 1970 Derby. Since the draw put Great Redeemer next to Spectacular Bid it was fair to wonder whether his old man had fallen to his left or right.
All week long, Dr. Mohamed got more attention than Spectacular Bid. He was the butt of every joke on the racetrack. After the draw somebody asked Harry Meyerhoff, who owned Spectacular Bid, how he felt about being next to a maiden in the starting gate.
“I wouldn’t know. It’s been so long for me I don’t remember.”
Dr. Mohamed arrived and did about as much good for his horse as a guy calling room service for more ice on the Titanic. He saddled Great Redeemer for the Derby, but he didn’t even have a seat to watch. He stood at the rail. Still, he never lost sight of his horse, who trailed by so many lengths you couldn’t miss him.
As expected, Spectacular Bid ran like hell and won easily.
To say Great Redeemer finished last is to understate what happened. Spectacular Bid beat him by 47 lengths. Lot o’ Gold, ninth in the 10-horse field, was the only other colt in the same state as Great Redeemer and he beat him by 25.
As Lot o’ Gold crossed the finish line, a gaggle of photographers who had no idea there was even another horse still out there, somewhere, between the finish line and Paris, Ky., cut across the track toward the winner’s circle.
Great Redeemer barely missed running two of them down.