03/15/2017 2:20PM

Derby Watch: A pinch-hit home run? It's happened before

Barbara D. Livingston
With stablemate Mastery sidelined, American Anthem will try to carry on to the Kentucky Derby.

When American Anthem goes to the post in the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel Stakes on Saturday at Oaklawn Park, he’ll do so as the best chance for trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith to win this year’s Kentucky Derby now that the unbeaten Mastery has been removed from the picture following his injury in the San Felipe Stakes last Saturday.

And if American Anthem does go on to win the Kentucky Derby, he’ll join the likes of Iron Liege, Swale, and Super Saver as understudies who stepped up and wore the roses after a stable’s leading candidate went down.

Iron Liege famously won the 1957 Kentucky Derby when Bill Shoemaker, aboard Gallant Man, misjudged the finish line and stood up briefly before the wire. As celebrated as that Derby was in terms of its depth, both of those colts were considered inferior at the time to Gen. Duke, who had set a track record for 1 1/8 miles when winning the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and arrived in Kentucky as the consensus favorite for the Derby.

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Both Gen. Duke and Iron Liege were sons of Bull Lea who were owned and bred by the powerhouse Calumet Farm and trained by the father-and-son team of Ben and Jimmy Jones. Gen. Duke prepped in the Derby Trial on the Tuesday of Derby Week, finished second, and emerged from the race with a sore foot.

“He was suffering from a slight internal stone bruise in an area about halfway up the wall of the hoof in his left forefoot,” Whitney Tower wrote in his recap of the race for Sports Illustrated. “The bruise, said a deeply depressed Jimmy, might heal itself by Derby Day, but it looked doubtful. As this startling news boosted the hopes of rival owners and trainers, it also presented Jones with a difficult decision which he alone would have to make. Should he run his big horse anyway, thereby taking a serious chance of incurring a further and more damaging injury – or should he scratch? Jones met the problem head-on: ‘A horse has but one day in his life to run in the Kentucky Derby, and I sure hate to see a good one like Gen. Duke have to miss it. But a man has to think of the future in this game, and Gen. Duke will have lots of other chances even if he doesn’t get to go in the race we want most.’ ”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Gen. Duke was sent out Derby morning to test the foot and went a quarter-mile in 24 seconds before subsequently being withdrawn.

After Gen. Duke was scratched, Bill Hartack, who had been scheduled to ride him and was the first-call rider for Calumet, replaced Dave Erb on Iron Liege. And instead of Gen. Duke and Iron Liege being coupled in the wagering, Iron Liege raced solo, his 8-1 odds far higher than they would have been had he been coupled with Gen. Duke.

In 1984, Devil’s Bag entered the year as the overwhelming Derby favorite following a brilliant, unbeaten 2-year-old campaign in which he was named champion. His trainer, Woody Stephens, also had Swale on the Derby trail, and Eddie Maple had been riding both horses. In March, both appeared like they would get to the Derby, and Maple opted to stick with Devil’s Bag. Laffit Pincay Jr. was put on Swale to familiarize himself with the colt in two races prior to the Derby.

But Devil’s Bag never made it. He was a well-beaten fourth in the Flamingo, and though he won twice following that race, his victory one week prior to the Derby in the Derby Trial was workmanlike.

“This was the narrowest and least impressive triumph of his career,” wrote Steven Crist in The New York Times. “He went the mile ‘round one turn under Eddie Maple in 1:35 3/5, decent but not outstanding time for a very fast track. He was tiring badly at the finish, bore out repeatedly down the stretch, and was exhausted after the race.”

Stephens was hospitalized with pneumonia in a Louisville hospital and came out briefly one morning to Churchill Downs to announce, while sitting in the passenger seat of a car, that Devil’s Bag would not run in the Derby.

And then Swale went out and won the race. It was a salve for Stephens – who watched the race in an indoor area at the track – and for Seth Hancock, whose family’s Claiborne Farm owned and bred Swale and had already syndicated Devil’s Bag at a value of $36 million.

“It’s been a hard week,” Hancock was quoted as saying by Maryjean Wall in the Lexington Herald-Leader. “It’s been a hard winter.”

It was the lone Derby win for Pincay. Maple never won the Derby.

Devil’s Bag never ran again. He was retired two days after the Derby when a fracture was detected in his right knee. Swale won the Belmont but died from a sudden cardiac episode eight days later.

In 2010, trainer Todd Pletcher arrived at Churchill Downs with four potential colts for the Derby. The most highly regarded was Eskendereya, who had won the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial.

But Eskendereya had been battling issues following the Wood, and the week of the Derby, the white flag was waved, and he was withdrawn from consideration. He never raced again.

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Pletcher ended up with four starters – with the filly Devil May Care joining Discreetly Mine, Mission Impazible, and Super Saver – and he won it with Super Saver, his only Derby win.

“Super Saver had been behind all winter,” Pletcher recalled on Wednesday. “The original plan was to go to the Wood, but we ended up going to the Arkansas Derby, and after he finished second there, he had the best three weeks of his life coming into the Derby.

“Calvin,” Pletcher said, referring to jockey Calvin Borel, “breezed him in the slop, and he loved it, and then it rained on Derby Day. You like to think you have control over things, but sometimes they just fall into place.”

John Velazquez, who had been riding Eskendereya, wound up on Devil May Care, who finished 10th. The next year, though, he won the Derby with Animal Kingdom.

Eskendereya was part of a lengthy streak of Derby heartbreaks for owner Ahmed Zayat, who finished second in the race in 2009, 2011, and 2012. But in 2015, he won the Derby, and the Triple Crown, with American Pharoah.