Along with other Derby lore, such as the benefits of different post positions, is the Curse of Apollo. Although it sounds rather deadly, it refers to the fact that Apollo, who won the 1882 Kentucky Derby, is the only horse to have won the Derby without racing as a 2 year old. The Derby has been run 135 times since then and, although a few have come close, the curse still stands.
In 1882, the Kentucky Derby was just growing into its reputation. It attracted a good field — 14 horses — that year, and was run over 1 1/2 miles, the same as the English Derby. The purse was $1,500, equivalent to about $35,000 today.
Apollo showed his speed in training as a 2-year old, but after a particularly fast workout he came up lame and his breeder, Daniel Swigert, turned him out of another year to recover. It took three races as a 3-year old for him to break his maiden and he carried odd of 10-1 going into the Derby.
Back then there were not starting gates. Instead, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr. , the grandson of explorer William Clark (who built Churchill downs) beat a kettle drum, according to University of Kentucky archives. After three false starts, the race began.
By the quarter pole, the favorite, Runneymeade stuck a nose in front, and in the homestretch, he seemed to be in command. The crowd leaped to its feet as they saw the favorite racing toward glory. At the eighth pole, however, he began to run out of steam, and Apollo was coming up like a bullet, in third place and taking aim at the leader. Fifty yards later he was at Runnymede’s withers, and at the eighth pole, he looked him in the eye.
Apollo slowly inched away, and went under the wire a half-length ahead of Runnymede.
The win was significant for owner Green B. Morris, who needed the win to pay off his debts. According to Apollo’s jockey, 15-year old Babe Hurd, Green said, “If I won, he would be able to meet all his obligations and he begged me to do my best.” And when Hurd won, Green reportedly said, “My boy, you shall never want for a dollar as long as you live.” Hurd had only been riding for two years when he won the Derby. He was paid $25 for winning a race and $10 for runner he rode, but he didn’t receive a salary. (From, When Apollo Won the Kentucky Derby).
Fast forward to this year’s race.
Two of the favorites, Justify and Magnum Moon, come to the Kentucky Derby undefeated . . . but unraced as two year olds. Justify has won all three of his races, most recently the Santa Anita Derby.