1994 Kentucky Derby Memories

Horse Racing Radar
Valerie Mellema
Valerie Mellema is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Thursday, April 22, 2021

I was born a horse crazy child. My mother showed Fox Trotters and owned horses when I was born. When I was five, my grandparents bought me my first pony. But, when I was around the age of 12 or 13, horse racing really began to pique my interest. In the library of Owasso Middle School was a thin paperback book about all of the Triple Crown Winners. I probably checked that book out and read it cover to cover a dozen times. Of course, my favorite will always be the great Secretariat, but 1994 has significance to me looking back over the years. And 1994 was the year of GO FOR GIN.

HOLY BULL was the favorite that year, ridden by Mike Smith. He had won the Florida Derby that year and then the Blue Grass Stakes. It was an unstoppable pair. The gray colt was plastered across the newspapers. Seriously, the whole sports section above the fold was a giant picture of Holy Bull. I still remember holding it in the check-out lane in the Homeland of Henryetta, Oklahoma. It was my weekend to visit my grandparents, so my grandma and I went to Homeland to pick up the necessities of an at-home Kentucky Derby party - frozen fudge bars being the most important. 

We headed back to her house and watched every second of pre-race footage. Every story of each horse and trainer that year. There were so many good horses that year too and what a time it was for some of the top jockeys to ride in the sport. D. Wayne Lukas had TABASCO CAT with Pat Day aboard. Lafitt Pincay Jr. was on VALIANT NATURE for Ronald McAnally. Kent Desormeaux on SOUL OF THE MATTER for Richard Mandella. Gary Stevens on BROCCO for Randy Winick. Jerry Bailey on BLUMIN AFFAIR for Jack Van Berg. Eddie Delahoussaye on STRODES CREEK for Charles Whittingham. And GO FOR GIN had the great Chris McCarron aboard for Nick Zito. There were many more of course, but these were some of the great jockeys and the names I remembered from that book in the library. 

Interestingly enough, Jerry Bailey was off GO FOR GIN and Nick Zito was in search of a rider just ten days before the Derby. Here's the story of how he got the ride:

Of course we all expected HOLY BULL to go out there and win it. Jack Whittington told us the story on television of about how HOLY BULL's owner Rachel Carpenter had died on the day of the colt's first race and she willed him and all her horses to her trainer, Jimmy Croll. HOLLY BULL went off at 2-1 with Jimmy Croll hoping to be the first owner/trainer to win the Derby since the 1900s. Him and Mike Smith were both hoping for their first Derby win. The hero of my story, however, is the plain bay - GO FOR GIN. He went off at 9-1.

It was just a little rainy that day. The television announcers were a little concerned about the track conditions, asking Croll repeatedly if he thought he could handle it. The last time the Derby track had been listed as "sloppy" was in 1948 afterall. What they failed to mention was that GO FOR GIN LOVED the slop. He was an East Coast horse afterall, not from sunny Florida like his counterpart. 

Nick Zito did know though, stating prior to the race, "This is a quality horse. He'll give it his all, and I'm telling you now: He'll put on a show."

At the break, ULISES and GO FOR GIN got to the front to lead. HOLY BULL broke poorly, almost squeezed and got stuck behind a wall of horses and was in sixth around the first turn. The quarter went in :22.5. The half was :37 ? with GO FOR GIN and Chris McCarron leading by a length and a half! Around the far turn, GO FOR GIN lead with BROCCO trying to close ground and BLUMIN AFFAIR. GO FOR GIN held the lead while HOLY  BULL was out of it in eighth. Pulling away in the stretch, GO FOR GIN won it decisively wire to wire. 

Chris McCarron got his second Derby win and Nick Zito was the most excited horse trainer we'd ever seen. I will never forget my grandma being so "tickled" (as she would put it) as he jumped up and down and hugged everybody in sight in celebration.

Two lengths back from GO FOR GIN was STRODES CREEK (Eddie Delahoussaye) with BLUMIN AFFAIR (Jerry Bailey) in third. I bet Jerry wished he kept that ride after that race.

HOLY BULL was the fifteenth favorite in a row to not win the Derby. He finished 12th in a field of 15. It was not the end of his career by any means, just a blip in a string of wins to follow - the Met, the Haskell, the Travers, and the Woodward. He took them all. 

GO FOR GIN on the other hand followed his Derby victory with a strong of seconds in the Preakness and Belmont. There would be no 1994 Triple Crown winner, nor would there be one for many more years to come. He ran in some big races, but didn't finish well in the Woodward or the Jockey Club Gold Cup and finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic before dropping class. 

He was retired at four due to an injury. He was in the money 14 of 19 starts with lifetime earnings of $1,380,866. He started his stud career at Claiborne Farm before moving to Bonita Farm in Maryland. His greatest foal was $3 million earner ALBERT THE GREAT. He stood for 17 seasons with 227 winners and 18 stakes winners out of 443 named foals. 

When his time in the breeding shed was over, William Boniface, owner of Bonita Farm, donated him to the Kentucky Horse Park where he now lives in a living museum of horses, bringing joy to us horse racing fans. He shares a small barn in the park with other horse racing greats including POINT GIVEN, DA HOSS and FUNNY CIDE. When I visited the first time, the legend of legends, CIGAR, lived in the paddock across from him.

This past weekend he celebrated his 30th birthday and is the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner. I have been fortunate to get to visit him there twice - once in 2011 and then again this past summer in July 2020. 

For me, he is also a living reminder of a very special lady in my life that I lost to cancer six years later, my grandmother. We may have watched another Derby or two together in the years that followed, but I honestly only remember this one, where we had our own little Derby party, ate fudge sticks and watched GO FOR GIN bring home the roses. 

And of course, as a horse girl, the next best thing to do after a Kentucky Derby is to ride your own horse and take pictures next to grandma's roses.

Yes, that's me circa 1994. Talk to my mom about the haircut!

The 1994 Kentucky Derby instilled a lifelong love of horse racing in me. I truly love it for the horses and not just the fun of gambling. I even got a degree in Equine Business. It has led me down a path in life in which I've been able to be involved in racehorse ownership in a partnership with JOHNNY HURRICANE, shares in AUTHENTIC and MONOMOY GIRL with and owning multiple retired racehorses. In 2019, I founded a nonprofit called Riders Up! at Lake Fork Stables that uses retired racehorses as lesson horses and for equine-assisted therapy. So thank you GO FOR GIN for that race and all the memories.


Get today's full picks for all tracks and races on our Premium Picks Page.