Not since Regret…

May 1st 2008 12:03 am |

The filly Regret was the last Derby winner with only three career starts. How hard is it to do? Curlin tried to buck the long trend last year and managed third. Can Big Brown do what Curlin could not? I have my doubts.

One thing you won’t hear on Derby Day is much of anything about the race Regret ran to pull off what hasn’t been done since. This, of course, is understandable considering the only evidence of the race (as far as I can tell) exists in text — not the most visually compelling medium.

In researching Regret’s Derby, I started by taking a look at the 1915 chart. The filly faced 16 opponents (the largest ever Derby field to that point in time, see NYT story below) and won wire to wire. Her comment line read: “Start good and slow. Won easily; second and third driving. REGRET, from a fast start and well ridden, took the lead at once and was rated in front until the last eighth, where she drew away, to win easing up.” While running times can be misleading from this era, for the record, Regret’s running line looked like this: :23 3/5, :48 3/5, 1:13 3/5, 1:39 2/5, 2:05 2/5 over a fast track.

The New York Times reported the day before the race:

“Annually for many years past this event has been looked upon as the biggest race in the United States, and the glamor that surrounds this year’s race eclipses the previous races by far.”

While it may have been considered a big race in 1915, it had yet to become the media circus that it is today. Evident in the reporting of the race itself. The race’s result appeared on the second page of the sports section in the New York Times and Baltimore Sun. The Sun had more coverage for the races at Pimlico then the big race in Kentucky. Regret’s win shared a headline on page two of the Washington Post sports section:

None of these major newspapers had a reporter attend the race and none published photographs. The Post article is the longest of the three but all were compiled from the same wire story.

Read from a PDF created from microfilm or read the transcript of the Washington Post story from May 9, 1915 below:

“Louisville, May 8 — Regret, the wonderful daughter of Broomstick, owned by H.P. Whitney and ridden by Jockey J. Notter, upset tradition in the running of the forty-first Kentucky derby this afternoon when she led all the way. She was the first filly to ever triumph in the Kentucky classic. Pebbles, the Butler crack, was second all the way, and, despite urgent handling by Borel, was not good enough. Sharpshooter came from far back in the third money.

“This time, 2:05 2/5 was surprising, as it was believed that the old track record would go by the boards.

“The race was run and won on its merits, with the best one of the lot winning. The filly was hardly blowing when she pulled up within the charmed circle before the judges stand. She was given the greatest ovation ever given a winner of the derby.

“It was 5:23 before Starter Morrissey got the field off. Regret showed in front, with Pebbles hanging close up. They passed the stand in this way, with Emerson Cochran showing a brief flash of speed.

“At the mile Borel made a determined bid with Pebbles, but Notter loosened a wrap on the representative of H.P. Whitney, and she came on, to win with much in reserve.

“Mr. Whitney witnessed the victory of his filly. Other visitors included William F. McCombs, New York chairman of the Democratic national committee; former United States Senator Johnson N. Camden, James Butler, Foxhall Keene, Andrew Miller, Barney Dreyfuss and August Belmont

“Regret was installed favorite in the betting, but so open was the content thought to be that a $2 winning mutuel tickets paid $7.30.”

So who did Regret beat? The New York Times article published the day of the race provides some insight on how challenging the pundits viewed the 1915 Derby. The New York Times had this to say a day before the race:

“Looking backward over all the Derby races run in the United States it is difficult to find a counterpart of what the Kentucky Derby bids fair to be this Spring. It is very probable that even in numbers the field will break all previous records, while in class the like has never before been quite so great. The greatest number of starters that even went to post in this race was in its inaugural year, 1875, when fifteen three-year-olds faced the starter.”

Regret’s trainer James Rowe Sr. (who gets no mention in the news stories) won 8 Belmont Stakes including the legendary 1908 Belmont won by our pal Colin. His win with Regret was his second Kentucky Derby win (the first: 1881 with Hindoo). Rowe’s list of owners he trained for included: James R. Keene, August Belmont, and Harry Payne Whitney (the owner of Regret). Needless to say, the term “super trainer”, though not yet coined, would apply here.

A final note, Regret’s sire, Broomstick, also sired the 1911 Derby winner Meridian. An article published a few days after Regret’s Derby stated, Broomstick “…has headed the list of winning sires for the last two seasons, and the start he has made this year indicates that he will enjoy that honor again in 1915.”

The article said nothing of the Broomstick daughter who had just won the Derby.

So what do we make of all this. Is it worthwhile to use this level of historical detail about Regret in the context of this year’s Derby? Why not? If we think it is important enough to talk about the long drought for 4th time starters in the Derby then I think it should be considered. What we can surmise from what we uncovered here is that Regret ran against a tough and full field, was trained by one of the best trainers of his era, for one of the best sires of the era, and had an owner and breeder whose name has become legendary in the history of racing. Big Brown is trained by Richard Dutrow, by Boundary, and owned by an alphabet soup consortium called IEAH stables. Not to knock Dutrow or his owners but, in this context, making a comparison is fair.

The most important lesson learned about Regret from the pages of history: She was one of the sport’s all time greats. She lost only two races (9 wins from 11 starts) in four season from 1914-1917. If Big Brown is able to pull this off (from post 20!), we might be witness to a great one.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON REGRET

Derby Chart and Career Overview

Regret’s Wiki page

Regret’s Hall of Fame page

SOURCES

FOURTEEN IN DERBY.; Best American Horses in Kentucky Fixture to be Run Today, New York Times, May 8, 1915

THE KENTUCKY DERBY.; A Remarkable Field Ready for This Year’s Race at Churchill Downs, New York Times, May 7, 1915

REGRET WINS DERBY; H.P. Whitney’s Filly, First of Her Sex to Capture Kentucky Classic, New York Times, May 9, 1915

Regret is First Filly in Classic Race, Washington Post, May 9, 1915

WHITNEY 2-YEAR-OLDS FAST; Five Races Won By Broomstick Youngsters this Season, New York Times, May 13, 1915

I found the 1915 Derby Chart on the Churchill Downs Inc. website. CDI has done an outstanding job with the Kentucky Derby website. They thoroughly cover the upcoming race and the design is slick. It can be somewhat difficult to navigate if you are hunting for something specific but if you like to browse you could spend hours. Paul Moran’s historic On the Muscle articles are top notch and visually stunning.

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Question? Email me at kevin[{AT}]colinsghost.org