05/02/2013 2:12PM

Kentucky Derby: Apollo stands along among winners

Barbara D. Livingston
Verrazano will try to join Apollo as the only Derby winners who did not race at 2.

Apollo gets mentioned whenever there's a Kentucky Derby contender who didn't compete as a juvenile - like Verrazano, one of this year's favorites. Apollo won the race in 1882 and remains the only Derby winner without any starts at 2.

"Some fools think he's a right smart horse, though he ain't," was the assessment of Green B. Morris, Apollo's trainer and co-owner, when asked about his Derby chances in early 1882. But Morris wagered heavily on Apollo in the Derby winter books.

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Descriptions of Apollo mention his stout neck, high-mounted shoulders, deep chest, long quarters and hips, and clean, bony legs. He stood slightly above 15 hands at maturity, and had the appearance of a durable athlete.

"He was always an honest running horse," opined Daily Racing Form nearly three decades after Apollo's Derby triumph. His career record included 55 starts, from which he gained 24 victories, an identical number of placings, and purse earnings of $21,680.

Apollo was a seven-time stakes winner. At age 4, he won nine consecutive races in a period of 40 calendar days. Apollo competed at distances ranging from six furlongs to three miles. He raced in Saratoga, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Memphis, and at the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock. He twice started and won on consecutive afternoons at Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay in New York.

He was bred in Kentucky by Daniel Swigert, who later founded Elmendorf Farm. Apollo's sire was either Ashtead, an imported stallion, or Lever, a son of Lexington. (Swigert wasn't sure.) Turf chroniclers of the day believed Apollo was of Lexington's line.

Rebecca T. Price, the dam of Apollo, was a granddaughter of the 1830 English Derby winner, Priam. Swigert and his business partner James D. Patton purchased Apollo from Swigert in the fall of 1881 - the price was $1,200 down and $300 more if Apollo won the Derby - and gelded the colt before the year was over.

On April 11, 1882, Apollo made his debut, finishing second in the Pickwick Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. A week later, he was second in a pair of one-mile heats at Fair Grounds. Six days after that, he won the Cottrill Stakes. Morris then took him north to Louisville.

The Derby's host site was much different back then. Churchill Downs wasn't known by that name - it was simply called the Louisville Jockey Club track. The grandstand was located in what is now the stable area, and there were no spires atop the structure.

And the Derby was different, too. Its distance was 1 1/2 miles, its purse totaled $4,760, and the field was sent away by starter M. Lewis Clark beating a kettledrum. The Derby wasn't run on the first Saturday in May. It occurred on the third Tuesday of the month.

Admission to the grounds was free. An Eastern periodical noted that the Derby attracted "a magnificent assemblage, including hundreds of New York gentlemen," and that "the race is gradually attracting more attention from the betting public than more important events much nearer New York."

Runnymede, owned by brothers Phil and Mike Dwyer, was the even-money favorite in the 14-horse Derby. At age 2, Runnymede had been a stakes winner at Saratoga. James McLaughln, who had won the 1881 Derby with Hindoo, was his rider. In a prerace expression of arrogance, McLaughlin, who was white, told the black jockeys (who were in the majority) that he'd give them "a riding lesson."

Babe Hurd, a 15-year-old black jockey, had the mount on Apollo, who was a field entrant in the auction pools and 30-1 with the bookmakers. Decades later, Hurd recalled that as he climbed aboard Apollo in the paddock, Morris told him, "Win this and you shall never want for a dollar as long as you live."

And Hurd won, as Apollo caught Runnymede two strides from the wire and prevailed by a half-length. The final time was 2:40 1/4.  It was an incredible upset, and it spurred a nasty rumor - that McLaughlin had been "bought off" by New York bookmakers, who would have been bankrupted by a Runnymede victory. Much was alleged; nothing was proven.

Apollo raced until age 5, and then was given to Morris's friend William Hughes, of Charleston, S.C. The gelding became a pleasure horse, ridden under the Magnolia trees through Charleston's cobblestone streets, until he died of lockjaw on Nov. 14, 1887.

Morris finished second with Drake Carter in the 1883 Derby, and second again with Bersan in 1885. On Aug. 13, 1920, at the age of 83, Morris was hit by an automobile outside the track gates at Saratoga. He died that evening in a local hospital.

Hurd was the last surviving team member. He died on Dec. 7, 1928, at Longridge Farm near Paris, Kentucky. "I got $25 for the win with Apollo," Hurd recalled in his autumn years.
"But, though many times I did want for a dollar, I never wanted for a Derby memory. No, sir, that's something I had."