The 142nd Kentucky Derby is showing its age, in a gray kind of way.
Four of the expected 20 horses in the field Saturday are subtly different shades of gray, from the lightest in Japan-based Lani, to the more steely grays Mohaymen and Destin to the most dappled of all in Creator.
“They have fairly similar shading,” says Rick Bailey, the registrar for The Jockey Club. “It is a bit unusual to have four gray 3-year-olds in a race.”
To get an idea how rare it is for 20 percent of the Derby field to be gray, consider the 2013 foal crop. It produced 23,169 foals, according to The Jockey Club, which keeps the breed registry. Just 1,937, or 8.36 percent, were classified gray or roan (the official designation since 1993). Since 1930, 102 of the 1,338 Derby starters were grays, or 7.6 percent. The majority of horses are bay, dark brown or chestnut.
The last time so many grays ran for the roses was 2001. The most dating back to 1930 is five, in 1968 and 1981. Of the eight grays who have won the Derby, they all left quite a historic impression.
— Giacomo, the most recent gray to win the Derby, romped home at 50-1 odds in 2005.
— Monarchos won in 2001 in the second fastest time in history (only Secretariat in 1973 was faster).
— Winning Colors was the third filly to win in 1988.
— The others were Determine (1954), Decidedly (1962), Spectacular Bid (1979), Gato Del Sol (1982) and Silver Charm (1997).
All four grays in Saturday’s Derby have a legitimate chance — and a distinguishing feature. Creator, winner of the Arkansas Derby, has a white splotch on the top of his right thigh. Mohaymen, a winner in 5 of 6 races, has a gray mane. Lani, the UAE Derby winner, has a very dark mane. Destin, the Tampa Bay Derby winner, has white markings on his left foreleg.
Win or lose, though, grays stand out in a crowd, for fans and gamblers, and for owners, trainers and jockeys.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve been a sucker for grays,” says Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., who rode a few grays in his career. “The first horse I bet on was a gray. When you watch them on TV, you can spot them anywhere. I love them.”
Todd Pletcher, who trains Destin, says grays probably have a greater following with the general public. But in the racing business, color doesn’t matter so much. It’s the breeding that counts.
This year, one of the leading stallions is Tapit, a striking gray (now almost white) who ran ninth in the 2004 Derby. He is the sire of Creator, Lani and Mohaymen. Destin is a son of Giant’s Causeway, out of the gray mare Dream of Summer.
“You’re going to likely see more grays because successful stallions like Tapit and Unbridled’s Song are doing so well at the moment,” Pletcher said.
Cupid, yet another gray son of Tapit, would have made it a record-equaling five Derby starters but had a minor breathing problem during the Arkansas Derby and is recovering.
Going gray became popular in American thoroughbred racing with the emergence of Native Dancer and the dawn of TV in the 1950s. Not only did he stand out because of his coat, he had a flair for dramatic come-from-behind finishes. He entered the 1953 Derby unbeaten.
“His grey coat stood apart in any equine crowd, discernible not only to fans at the track but also to those watching on TV,” wrote John Eisenberg in his book “Native Dancer, The Grey Ghost: hero of a Golden Age.”
Until Dancer came around, though, grays were rare in the U.S. Many horsemen considered them unlucky, simply novelties not worth much consideration.
The “Grey Ghost” changed all that. He was beaten by a head in the Derby, but never lost again. He won 21 of 22 races and is considered among the sport’s greatest horses. It was good to be gray.
“That Derby caught my attention. I was instantly attracted to him,” Cordero said, recalling watching the ‘53 Derby in a movie theater when he was growing up in Puerto Rico.
These days, there are all kinds of theories on whether grays might be different from other horses beyond their color. Cordero thinks they’re great on muddy tracks, and on grass courses. He says he knows of owners who search for grays to buy. Pletcher said a veterinarian insisted grays are more durable, less injury prone and heartier, but “I haven’t seen that to be scientifically proven. It was his theory, though.”
Nonetheless, color is a huge piece of the puzzle for Larry Collmus, who calls the Derby for NBC Sports.
“I become familiar with the different color silks and with all of that on a gray horse, it’s a completely different picture,” Collmus said.
The official designation of the gray was changed to gray or roan because it makes horse identification easier. Gray horses have a majority mixture of black and white hairs; roan horses have a majority mix of red and white hairs or brown and white hairs. Grays lighten with age; roans do not.
Then again, grays are not always gray when they turn for home. Collmus recalls the 2012 Derby with Creative Cause, who finished fifth behind I’ll Have Another.
“He was a gray from California,” Collmus said. “I studied his silks, but the track was a little off and when he turned for home he had lost his gray. He was brown. He had dirt kicked on his head and I hesitated for a moment before I realized what happened. It gave me cause for pause.”