Photos by Eclipse Sportswire
After Danza won the Grade 1 $1-million Arkansas Derby at odds of 41-to-1 on April 12, my friend turned to me and complained, “the longshots always win this damn race.”
For the most part, the Arkansas Derby has been won by shorter-odds horses who have gone on to illustrious racing careers — horses like Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Curlin and Lawyer Ron. But it’s also true that in past years there have been some big longshots.
Archarcharch won in 2011 at odds of 25-to-1. The year before that, Line of David won at 17-to-1. In 2003, Sir Cherokee shocked everyone by winning the race at odds of 55-to-1.
The biggest longshot to ever win the Arkansas Derby was in 1993. That year, not many of the more than 70,000 in attendance at Oaklawn Park had a bet on Rockamundo. Despite a promising 2-year-old season, the horse had only won a single race in nine starts coming in to the Arkansas Derby, and it was an allowance race in Omaha, Neb. Including the Arkansas Derby, he had been piloted by four different jockeys in his last four races. Rockamundo had been beaten so soundly in his last two races that his trainer, Ben Glass, didn’t want to enter him in the Arkansas Derby at all. He said the horse would need to have a good workout in order for him to consider it. Otherwise, “Plan B” was that he’d enter Rockamundo in an allowance race.
Rockamundo worked very well. He gave his trainer a bullet workout, and Glass relented and let Rockamundo’s owners, Nebraska natives Gary and Mary West, enter the horse in the Arkansas Derby.
What changed? Rockamundo’s jockey in the Remington Derby, Mark Guidry, had unlocked the riddle.
He was holding his breath.
Guidry told Glass that during the Remington Derby he could feel the horse stop running, so he reached down and poked the horse in the belly. He heard a gasp. It was a dead giveaway.
Glass decided during that decisive morning workout to test Guidry’s theory. He told Calvin Borel, the 26-year-old jockey assigned to ride Rockamundo in the Arkansas Derby, to give him a poke in the belly during the workout to make him exhale. Borel did as instructed and the horse responded with a five-furlong workout in 1:00 3/5, the best time of any horse that morning. Glass’s confidence ticked up.
It isn’t uncommon to hear stories of horses holding their breath during races. They say that Secretariat was holding his breath during his loss in the Wood Memorial Stakes.
Whatever the reason, Rockamundo was ready for the Arkansas Derby. He rated off the leaders and then took his first opportunity in the stretch to run through a hole on the rail. At the time, the young Calvin Borel claimed that Rockamundo took the hole “without any urging from me.” After decades of watching Cavlin “Bo-Rail,” we now know better. Whatever urged him, though, he went for it and triumphed by 1 ½ lengths while completing the 1 ⅛-mile race in a time of 1:48.17. It was the second-fastest Arkansas Derby in history and the single fastest prep for the Kentucky Derby of any horse that year.
When Rockamundo crossed the finish line in first, his odds on the tote board read 99-to-1. But that’s just because there wasn’t enough room to display his real odds: 108-to-1. Some simulcast locations had him at 200-to-1 or higher. He was the longest shot to ever win the Arkansas Derby.
He would enter the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but never hit the board in seven subsequent races. He raced through his 4-year-old season and lived to the ripe old age of 23. He was buried right next to his paddock-mate, another horse that made his name as a longshot, 1992 Kentucky Derby upset winner Lil E. Tee.
Rockamundo would end his career with only two lifetime victories — a Nebraska allowance race and the 1993 Arkansas Derby — but he earned his spot in horse racing history.