Archives for March 2017


Silky Sullivan was a California-bred superstar as the 1958 Kentucky Derby approached, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated on April 28th and capturing the attention of people who were not fans of horse racing.  He was a muscular 16 hands-plus picture-perfect specimen known as the “California Comet” whose chestnut coat gleamed in the Golden State sun.

Silky Sullivan’s appeal was his running style, which was lagging far, far behind the field in the early part of races and then closing with a tremendous rush.  His trainer, Reggie Cornell, and his regular jockey, Bill Shoemaker, said that the colt would not respond to efforts to keep him closer to the pace.

In a 6 ½ furlong prep race for the Kentucky Derby, Silky Sullivan was 41 lengths behind after a quarter of a mile, and rallied to win.  Has a horse ever overcome such a gap in a sprint and won?  Doubtful.

In the Kentucky Derby, CBS televised the race using a split screen, with one screen focused on the field and the other screen showing the dawdling Silky Sullivan.

Prior to the Kentucky Derby, Silky Sullivan had won half his 14 starts.  In the Santa Anita Derby on March 8, 1958, his last race before the Kentucky Derby, the colt made up a 26-length deficit to win by three lengths at 1 1/8 miles.

Silky Sullivan went off in the Kentucky Derby as the co-favorite with Calumet Farm’s Tim Tam…and dashed his followers hopes by losing to Tim Tam by 20 lengths and finishing twelfth.  Tim Tam repeated the drubbing in the Preakness, beating Silky Sullivan by 15 lengths.

While Silky Sullivan had lost much of his mystique after the Derby and Preakness, he delighted his loyal fans by returning to California and winning two sprints with his come-from-behind style.

Silky Sullivan lived out his life as a breeding stallion of some note and was paraded for several years in front of adoring fans at California racetracks on St. Patrick’s Day.  He continued to receive fan mail for years after his 1958 campaign.  Silky Sullivan died in 1977 and was buried near the tote board at Golden Gates Field racetrack in San Francisco.

It is difficult today to imagine what it was like in 1958 when a charismatic racehorse was a household name.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

The series on Kentucky Derby history began on February 20 and ends on May 1.


Analyzing and betting sensibly on horse races is an intellectual challenge requiring consideration of a multitude of variables that may affect the outcome.  A handicapper must sort out the variables and weight them in terms of their importance given the conditions of a race.  Computer software enables a handicapper to develop a quantitative model and back-test its predictive power.

Might artificial intelligence produce a superior result?  In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov.  Great advancements in AI have been made since then, in a variety of dissimilar endeavors, from medicine to gaming.  For example:

  • Northwestern University researchers developed AI that beat the average American in solving the intelligence test of visual and analogical reasoning called the Raven Progressive Matrices Test.
  • Researchers at Imperial College London developed AI that was more accurate in diagnosing pulmonary hypertension than the typical cardiologist.
  • AI is being applied by major employers to sort out the best candidates to fill job openings.
  • At the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University used the AI program Libratus to play four world champion poker players (one-on-one, not as a group) in 120,000 hands of heads-up no-limit hold’em.  In the end, Libratus had an advantage of 1.8 million chips.

There are important fundamental differences, of course, in playing chess and poker, and handicapping horse racing or sports events.  In chess, both players can see the other’s moves and thus there is no private information.  By contrast, in poker, each player has incomplete information because some of the cards are hidden…and thus probability becomes a key determinant of winning and losing.  In horse racing and human sports competition like soccer and basketball, there is plenty of public information available to bettors, but also there is private information that the average bettor is not privy to…and luck plays a role as well.

AI may be more difficult to develop for handicapping horse races than playing chess or poker, but it does offer potential because AI can handle the interactions among numerous variables that determine the results of a race and it can do simulations.  Plus, AI takes human emotion out of the decision.

Our sponsor, SBAT, has been exploring possibilities of using AI to better understand, interpret and explore statistics in an effort to make betting easier and offer valuable information and guidance needed to wager intelligently on sports like horse racing and soccer.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business


The 1933 Kentucky Derby stands as the most contentious in the history of the race.  It has this distinction because the winning and second-placed jockeys physically attacked one another during and after the running.

Colonel E. R. Bradley owned the declared winner Brokers Tip, a maiden coming in to the Kentucky Derby, who had been born with a deformed foot and could not stand on his own as a weanling.  He eventually overcame this infirmity and ran with the aid of special shoeing.  Brokers Tip was sired by Black Toney, also the sire of the 1924 Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold.

The favorite in the 59th Kentucky Derby 13-horse field was the entry of Ladysman, the champion 2-year-old of 1932, and Pomponious.  However, the race turned out to be a two-horse duel between Brokers Tip, ridden by Don Meade, and Head Play, with Herb Fisher aboard.

The book Portraits of Kentucky Derby Winners, by Beverly Bryant, described how the race played out:

“At the top of the stretch jockey Herb Fisher, unware that Brokers Tip was coming up behind him, took Head Play wide to ride out Charley O, a fatal mistake as Don Meade then pushed Brokers Tip through the hole left by Head Play.  Fisher, thinking he had the race won, came back to do battle neck and neck with Brokers Tip, but Head Play was ‘out of gas’ from running wide, and Fisher made his desperate (physical) lunge to stop Meade.  Past the wire, Fisher stood in his stirrups and slashed at Meade with his whip…Back in the jockey’s room, [Fisher] attacked Meade and they fought viciously until reporters and valets broke them up.”

To be more specific, as the horses approached the finish line, Fisher grabbed Meade’s saddle and Meade retaliated by grabbing Fisher’s shoulder.

In a vast understatement, the official chart of the race said about the incident that Head Play “bumped the winner.”

The 1933 Kentucky Derby did not have the benefit of a precise finish-line photo, so four stewards awarded the race to Brokers Tip.  No one knows for sure who actually won.

Arguably, the most famous photo in the annals of American horse racing was taken by {Louisville) Courier-Journal photographer Wallace Lowry, who took a picture of the “Fighting Finish” from beneath the rail near the finish line.  Click here to see the photo and a narrative about the race.

With Charlie Kurtsinger in the saddle, Head Play won the Preakness and Brokers Tip broke down in the race.  Brokers Tip came back as a 6-year-old but was unplaced in five starts.  His lone career win was in the Kentucky Derby.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

The series on Kentucky Derby history began on February 20 and ends on May 1.