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May 2, 2006

There’s first, and there’s worst: You might pick the winner. Can you say which horses will bring up the rear?

When you get tired of the relentless Kentucky Derby hype and want to have a little fun, sit down with a couple of your friends and try to pick the horse that will finish last on Saturday at Churchill Downs. Understand, this is different than trying to pick the worst horse in the field. Sometimes, due to the vagaries of racing luck, the last-place Derby horse is just the one that had the worst trip.If you want to get further involved in reverse — or, if you will, perverse — handicapping, see if you can pick the bottom superfecta. Believe me, it’s every bit as tough to sniff out the four horses who will bring up the rear as it is to pick the four whose numbers will light up the toteboards after the race.You get the idea. Let others look for the next Secretariat. I’m going to be looking for the next Great Redeemer.I’ve been on the Derby trail since 1964, when I covered Northern Dancer’s victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and I’m here to tell you that Great Redeemer is absolutely, positively the worst horse that has run in the Derby during that span. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that he’s the worst Derby horse ever.I realize the competition is steep. For each of the 11 thoroughbreds who have used the Derby as the springboard to racing’s Triple Crown, there are hundreds who were in the race only because of the owner’s ego or the trainer’s ambition.I’m talking about the barking dogs of the equine world. The horses who are so dreadful you wouldn’t bet them with your worst enemy’s money.My friend Jim Bolus, the great Derby historian who died in 1997, was, naturally, the preeminent expert on the subject. (Although I’ll be that even Jim didn’t know that two different horses named American Eagle have finished last in the Derby).  He even developed a list that he called “The Derby’s Dirty Dozen.”At the bottom of his list, coming in a No. 12, was Rae Jet, who finished last to Majestic Prince in 1969.I was never sure if Jim really thought that Rae Jet was that bad or whether he was just trying to get a rise out of his trainer, J.T. “Tommy” Cosdon, who is better known for his singing than his training. If you’re over 45 and have never rock-n-rolled to the music of “Cosmo,” as in “Cosmo and the Counts,” then you can’t really call yourself a Louisvillian.To this day, Tommy can work up a righteous indignation at the suggestion that Rae Jet didn’t belong in the ’69 Derby field. Never mind that he finished 42 ½ lengths behind the winner. His jockey said the crowd — which included President Richard Nixon and future Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan — upset him. That was his story and he stuck to it, which was good enough for Tommy.At the top of Bolus list — or at the bottom of the all-time Derby field, if you prefer to look at it that way — was Seneca’s Coin, who finished last to Ponder in 1949. Jim and I didn’t disagree on much, but this time I didn’t think he was being fair to poor Seneca’s Coin, who was “pulled up” at the top of the stretch and jogged home, meaning we have no accurate barometer of how inept he truly was.The No. 2 horse on Bolus’ list was Frank Bird, who finished last in the 1908 Derby. To give you an idea of just how slow Frank Bird was, you should know that the winner, Stone Street, was clocked at 2:15 1/5, the slowest winning mile-and-a quarter time in the race’s history.The estimates of how badly Frank Bird got beat ranged from 29 ½ lengths to 45 lengths. A reporter for The Courier-Journal said it was “about a quarter of a mile.” But here’s a question for the ages: Was Frank Bird really worse than the immortal Orlandwick, whom Bolus ranked third? He finished way up the track in the six-horse Derby of 1907. The best the chart-caller could say about him was, “Orlandwick had no mishap.”Bolus ranked Great Redeemer as the fourth worst horse in Derby history, which I thought was way out of line. Put in the same race with Seneca’s Coin, Frank Bird and Orlandwick, I’m confident the unparalleled lack of class and talent that Great Redeemer exhibited in 1979 would assert itself.He never should have been in the race. His owner called the Churchill Downs racing office to enter him 10 minutes after the entry box had officially closed. Incredibly, considering that nobody had ever heard of him, the track took the entry.And damned if Great Redeemer didn’t draw the starting gate right next to Spectacular Bid, the overwhelming favorite.Bid’s owner, Harry Meyerhoff, was apoplectic — and rightly so. What if Great Redeemer got so spooked by the crowd that he broke out of the gate and did a U-turn, knocking Bid out of the race? At that night’s Derby press party, Lynn Stone, then the track president, looked across the room and noted that a writer, who shall go nameless, was agitating the already agitated Meyerhoff.Dashing across the room, Stone got up in the writer’s face and pointed a finger. “You,” he said. “You’re over here stirring the shit!”Trust me, it is no fun to be caught in the act.Fortunately, the race broke cleanly. Spectacular Bid needed only a couple of strides to show Great Redeemer his butt, and then he pulled away until he was only a speck in the distance.At the end, as Spectacular Bid crossed the finish line, Great Redeemer was plodding down the stretch. He was so far back that the photographers who were lined up on the outer rail had time to tote their cameras across the track into the infield before Great Redeemer finally hit the wire.The official chart said Great Redeemer was defeated by 47 ¼ lengths. It didn’t seem that close.So who’s going to finish at the bottom of this year’s Derby? Who will join such unforgettable names as Bob Tail, Quasimodo and Burnt Cork on the list of last-place Derby finishers?It’s going to be tight at the back of the pack, but Showing Up gets the nod because that’s all he’ll be doing on Saturday. Just showing up. Contact the writer at billyr@leoweekly.com