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Mystik Dan wins the 150th Kentucky Derby by less than a nose

May 5th, 2024

Brian Hernandez Jr. rides Mystik Dan, right, runs to victory in the the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

The margin was a nose, but the smiles were a mile wide. In one of the closest finishes in almost 30 years, Mystik Dan won the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby.

The horse was generally overlooked by most, but he ran a smart race on the rail and poked his head in front in the final strides and held off Sierra Leone and Forever Young in the blanket finish.

It also completed a rare double for trainer Kenny McPeek and jockey Brian Hernandez, who also won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday with Thorpedo Anna. It was only the fourth time that has been done.

“That was the longest few minutes in my life I’ve spent waiting for them to hang the dang number up,” Hernandez said.

McPeek was effusive of his praise for Hernandez.

“Brian did an amazing job,” McPeek said. “He’s just a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant jockey. He’s probably one of the most underrated riders in the business. But not anymore.”

Mystik Dan wins the Kentucky Derby over Sierra Leone and Forever Young in a photo finish Saturday at Churchill Downs.Mystik Dan wins the Kentucky Derby over Sierra Leone and Forever Young in a photo finish Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Mystik Dan wins the Kentucky Derby over Sierra Leone and Forever Young in a photo finish Saturday at Churchill Downs. (Justin Casterline / Getty Images)

Mystik Dan paid $39.22 to win. The 3-year-old colt found his way into the Derby with a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby and a win in the Southwest Stakes, both at Oaklawn.

Mystik Dan probably will have a rematch with the Arkansas Derby winner, Muth, in two weeks at the Preakness.

Fierceness, the favorite, finished 15th, proving he might well be a “bounce” horse, meaning he runs well every other race.

The race was also a coming-of-age party for Japanese horses. Forever Young finished third and T O Password was fifth.

The final order of finish was Mystik Dan, Sierra Leone, Forever Young, Catching Freedom, T O Password, Resilience, Stronghold, Honor Marie, Endlessly, Dornach, Track Phantom, West Saratoga, Domestic Product, Epic Ride, Fierceness, Society Man, Just Steel, Grand Mo the First, Catalytic and Just a Touch.

Track officials were hoping to avoid the distractions that came with the last few Derbies and for the most part were successful. Last year there was a severe spike in fatalities including two horses on Derby Day. The track eventually had to stop racing and move the meet to Ellis Park, which is also owned by Churchill Downs. No singular cause for the fatalities was ever discovered.

There is also the ongoing saga of Churchill Downs vs. Bob Baffert. The Hall of Fame trainer was suspended for two years after provisional 2021 winner Medina Spirit tested positive for legal medication, but not legal on race day. Baffert was thought to be coming back this year, but Churchill unexpectedly added at least one more year to his suspension. Churchill said Baffert did not show enough contrition and didn’t take responsibility for the positive.

On the eve of this year’s entry deadline, Amr Zedan, one of Baffert’s owners, sued Churchill Downs to try to get his horse, Muth, into the Derby. The litigation failed on both the district and appellate level.

It would have been a circus like none other if Baffert had won the case and showed up at Churchill Downs sucking up all the oxygen from what the track was hoping would be the celebration surrounding its 150th running of the race.

And for insiders, there was the looming potential change of the television landscape. Since 2001 the Kentucky Derby has been on NBC but the contract was set to expire after next year. Fox has made a big push to get into the racing scene and outbid NBC for the Belmont, which it did for the first time last year. It also purchased 25% of NYRA Bets, the advance deposit wagering arm of the New York Racing Assn. But, on Saturday afternoon, it was announced that a deal had been reached to keep the Derby at NBC until 2032.

All in all, a pretty good week for Churchill and an even better one for McPeek and Hernandez.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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