How Mystik Dan won the 150th Kentucky Derby: The people and the moments that made a champion

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The problem with a life-changing event that takes two minutes to complete: Every move, every decision, even every non-decision, matters. Except that it’s not just the movements, decisions and non-decisions made during those two minutes that count; it’s a lifetime of shared choices that combine to create a life and, in one case, on a sweltering Saturday night, make history.

To unfold the story of Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan’s historic ride along the rail and into the record books requires more than just a trip back around the track at Churchill Downs. That includes a decision not to forgo a dinner party more than 30 years ago and a hunt for blood stock information in the basement of a university library years before even that. It requires a commitment to a mare who would have been retired and a father who convinces his son to fall in love with horse racing. It requires a jockey studying another rail runner and a partnership between a group of people who compete with the big names but intentionally don’t care to be one of them.

In the historic 150th running of this race, Mystik Dan delivered a breathtaking finish, beating second place Sierra Leone and third place Forever Young in the first three-horse photo finish since 1947. The finish was so close that she didn’t even win. Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. was certain of what had happened, asking a rider as he relieved Mystik Dan if he had won the Kentucky Derby.

It took five agonizing minutes for the answer to arrive, the 156,710 spectators in attendance going from euphoria as the three horses approached the wire to almost stunned silence as they, like the jockey, awaited the decision.

Eventually, Mystik Dan’s name appeared on the big board, the crowd in the stands shouting with joy, the striker sharing the news with Hernandez. “It took about two minutes, and then finally, when they said, ‘Yeah, you just won the Kentucky Derby, I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s a long two minutes.’ These are the longest two minutes in sports – from the fastest two minutes to the longest, by far.

Perhaps the only person who wasn’t surprised was coach Ken McPeek. The Kentucky-based coach pretty much made like Babe Ruth and made up his mind all week. On Friday, while attending a press conference to celebrate Kentucky Oaks winner Thorpedo Anna, it was suggested he might return for another winning presser the next day. “Count on it,” he said. When the promise was fulfilled, McPeek celebrated on the runway, tightly clutching his daughter Annie’s hand.

By combining the winning ride with that of Thorpedo Anna, McPeek became the first trainer since Ben Jones in 1952 to win the Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby double, and Hernandez the first jockey to do so since Calvin Borel in 2009.

It is normal that Hernandez is at the height of Borel. In a longer perspective of this race, one that reads more like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and considers how even the most insignificant decisions lead to an epic life, it’s Borel that Hernandez cited in the videos to study . Borel was known on the track as Calvin Bo-Rail for his love and comfort of riding along the rail, a place many jockeys would prefer to avoid. When Mystik Dan secured third position, Hernandez and McPeek began discussing how they could turn what many considered a disadvantage into an advantage. Hernandez discovered the secret sauce in Borel’s ride recaps.

One of Mystik Dan’s owners, Sharilyn Gasaway, holds the 150th Kentucky Derby trophy.

In the immediate here and now, in the 2:03.34 it took Mystik Dan to cover the 1 ¼ miles, the race was won because Hernanedez Jr. led the horse on a brilliant ride. He followed Track Phantom along the rail, and when the lead horse gave him a half-step of space, he squeezed Mystik Dan through the narrow gap that opened like a sliver of light under a doorframe, hanging on to the finish line to win. through a nose. Favorite Fierceness finished 15th.

But this race was won long before Hernandez released the video. It was won some forty years ago when a young McPeek buried himself in the University of Kentucky Agricultural Library to learn about the BloodHorse and Thoroughbred records. Taken to Keeneland by his grandfather, McPeek never saw himself doing anything other than horse racing. He jokes that his agricultural studies in the basement of the library might have given him better grades than his normal classes, but that’s only because they fueled a passion.

However, all this study and research has created a sort of horse racing common man. He prefers to touch every aspect of horse racing and is respected as both a bloodstock agent and a trainer. He even created an app – Horses Now – for replays. He is a firm believer in the industry and is appreciated and respected among his peers for his loyalty, decency and willingness to keep things simple. Horse racing is a large and expensive business, with the animals often owned by conglomerates rather than individuals. McPeek deliberately tried to avoid this approach. “I think what I’m most proud of is that we didn’t deal with Calumet Farm horses,” he said, citing the large Lexington breeding conglomerate. “We did it with working-class horses.”

McPeek trained Mystik Dan’s mare, Ma’am, and when she was nearing retirement, he convinced Lance, Brent and Sharilyn Gasaway not to retire her but to cross her with Derby entrant Goldencents 2013. Their agreement depends on the trust the owners have placed in McPeek, but also on their own horse racing roots and their small moments that led them to a small racehorse with the biggest victories.

Lance Gasaway, you could say, is the Mystik Dan of college football. That is to say, perhaps a little neglected. A record holder and Hall of Famer, he played not at Arkansas but at Arkansas-Monticello, where he was an NAIA All-American for the Boll Weevils. He got into horse racing at the urging of his father, Clint, the two partners at Oaklawn, their home track. Their biggest and best shot at the spotlight came with Wells Bayou, who won the Louisiana Derby and was targeted for the Kentucky Derby until COVID hit and moved the race to September.

Clint passed away about a year ago, and as Lance sat on the dais, he choked up when reminded of his father’s influence. “For me, it’s for him,” he said. “Dad would have loved it. He loved the game.” But a few years ago, when Madam was about to retire, Clint decided he was getting too old to start breeding horses. Lance chose to bring his first cousin, Brent.

Thirty-five years ago, Brent was supposed to meet Sharilyn, now his wife, for a date, but he was late. And then later. Turns out he was on the track, still racing. Sharilyn wasn’t exactly thrilled – at least not until Brent asked the question that night. When Sharilyn left her full-time job, the couple chose to pursue horse racing full-time, around the same time Clint and Lance took up the sport. When Lance needed a new partner for breeding and ultimately Mystik Dan’s ownership, Sharilyn and Brent made perfect sense.

Sitting side by side, sandwiched between McPeek and Hernandez, Lance and Sharilyn both looked a little wide-eyed and happily dazed. When asked how they might celebrate, Lance deadpanned, “I don’t know. I’ve never won the Derby before.

Neither does McPeek. But now, with his own Triple Crown – he won the Preakness in 2020 with Swiss Skydiver and the Belmont in 2002 with Sarqva – he at least had an idea. “I’m going to go back to the barn and hug all the staff and all the family,” he said. “And then my house is wide open if anyone wants to come.”

Mystik Dan may have won the Derby in two minutes of maneuvering, but it took a million smaller moments to create the masterpiece.

(Photo by jockey Brian J. Hernandez Jr. on Mystik Dan: Rob Carr / Getty Images)

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