How Mystic Dan Won the 150th Kentucky Derby: The People and Moments That Made a Champion

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The thing about a life-changing event that takes two minutes to finish: every move, every decision, even every indecision matters. Except it’s not just the moves, decisions, and non-decisions made in those two minutes that matter; It is a life full of divided decision choices that come together to create a life and, in one case on a damp Saturday evening, history.

To unravel the story of Kentucky Derby winner Mystic Dan’s historic path along the rail and into the record books, it takes a lot more than just rewinding around the Churchill Downs track. It involves deciding not to bail on a dinner date over 30 years ago and looking up information about the breed in the basement of a college library years before that. It entails a commitment to a mare who would otherwise be retired and a father who convinces his son to fall in love with horse racing. It takes one rider studying another rider riding the rails, and a partnership between a group of people who compete with the big names but have deliberately never cared to be one of them.

In this race’s historic 150th running, Mystic Dan produced a breathtaking finish, beating second-place Sierra Leone and third-place Forever Young in the first three-horse photo finish since 1947. The finish was so close, he didn’t win until jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. was sure what had happened , so a competitor relieving Mystic Dan asked if he had won the Kentucky Derby.

It took five agonizing minutes for the answer to arrive, as the 156,710 spectators turned from delight as the three horses approached the wire to near-stunned silence as they, like the jockey, awaited the decision.

Finally, Mystic Dan’s name appeared on the big board, with the fans in the stands cheering in delight, and the contestant sharing the news with Hernandez. “It took about two minutes, and then finally when they said, ‘Yes, I just won the Kentucky Derby,’ I said, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a long two minutes.’ It was the longest two minutes in sport – from the fastest to the longest ever.

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Perhaps the only person who wasn’t surprised was coach Ken McPeek. The Kentucky-based coach practically made himself look like Babe Ruth and called his shot all week. On Friday, when he sat down for a news conference to celebrate Kentucky Oaks winner Thorpedo Anna, it was said that he might be back for another winning news conference the next day. “Count on it,” he said. When the promise was delivered, McPeek celebrated on the track, holding his daughter Annie’s hand tightly.

By combining the winning ride with Thorpedo Anna’s ride, McPeek became the first trainer since Ben Jones in 1952 to win the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby double, and Hernandez was the first jockey to do so since Calvin Burrell in 2009.

It is fitting that Hernandez matches Borrell. In the longer view of this race, which makes it more like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and considers how even the most insignificant decisions lead to an epic life, it was Burrell that Hernandez made the videos to study. Burrell was known around the track as Calvin Bow-Real because of his love and comfort while riding along the rail, a place many riders would rather avoid. When Mystic Dan took third place, Hernandez and McPeak started talking about how they could turn what many perceived as a disadvantage into an advantage. Hernandez discovered the secret sauce in Burrell’s travel summaries.

One of Mystik Dan’s owners, Charlene Gasway, holds the 150th Kentucky Derby Cup.

At the moment, at 2:03.34, it took Mystik Dan to cover the 1 ¼ mile distance, and the race was won because Hernandez Jr. led the horse on a wonderful ride. Track Phantom followed along the rail, and when the lead horse gave him half a stride’s worth of space, he squeezed Mystik Dan through the narrow space that opened up like a sliver of light under a door frame, holding on to the finish line to win by a nose. Favorite Fierce finished 15th.

But that race was won long before Hernandez appeared on video. It was won about 40 years ago when a young McPeek buried himself in the University of Kentucky Agriculture Library to educate himself about BloodHorse and Thoroughbred horse records. His grandfather took him to Keeneland, and McPeek never saw himself doing anything other than horse racing. He jokes that his studies in the library basement probably resulted in better grades than regular coursework, but that’s only because it fuels his passion.

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All this study and exploration has created a kind of everyman’s horse race. He prefers to touch on every part of horse racing and is highly respected as both breed agent and trainer. He even created an app – Horses Now – for replay. He is a big believer in the industry, well-liked and well-respected among his peers for his loyalty, ethics, and willingness to keep things simple. Horse racing is a big, expensive business, and the animals are often owned by conglomerates rather than individuals. McPeak has deliberately tried to avoid this approach. “I think what I’m most proud of is that we didn’t do that with the Calumet Ranch horses,” he said, citing the large breeding group in Lexington. “We did it with working-class horses.”

McPeek trained the Mystic Dane mare, Ma’am, and when she approached retirement, he convinced Lance, Brent and Charlene Gassaway not to retire her but to breed her with Goldencents, a 2013 Derby entrant. Their approval goes back to the trust the owners placed in McPeek, but it also goes back to their racing roots The horses and their little moments that led them to a young racehorse that achieved the biggest victories.

You might argue that Lance Gassaway is the Mystic Dan of college football. This means that some may have been overlooked. A record holder and Hall of Famer, he starred not at Arkansas but at Arkansas Monticello, where he was an NAIA All-American for the Bull Weevils. He got into horse racing at the urging of his father, Clint, partners at Oaklawn, their home track. Their biggest and best shot in the spotlight came with Wells Bayou, who won the Louisiana Derby and was a target for the Kentucky Derby until the coronavirus hit and moved the race to September.

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Clint had died almost a year ago, and as Lance sat on the stand, he felt choked up as he remembered his father’s influence. “For me, this is for him,” he said. “Dad would have loved it. He loved the game.” But a few years ago, when Madam was about to retire, Clint decided he was too old to take up horse breeding. Lance chose to bring along his first cousin, Brent.

Thirty-five years ago, Brent was supposed to meet his now-wife, Charlene, for a blind date, but he was late. And then later. Turns out he was at the track, and still at the races. Charlene wasn’t thrilled — at least until Brent popped the question that night. When Charlene left her full-time job, the couple chose to get into horse racing full-time, around the same time Clint and Lance got into the game. When Lance needed a new breeding partner and, eventually, ownership of Mystic Dan, Charlene and Brent made perfect sense.

Lance and Charlene were sitting side by side, sandwiched between McPeek and Hernandez, looking a little wide-eyed and happily stunned. When asked how they would celebrate, Lance deadpanned: “I don’t know. I’ve never won the Derby.”

Nor was McPeek. But now, with a Triple Crown of his own — he won the Preakness in 2020 with Swiss Skydiver and the Belmont in 2002 with Sarqva — he at least had an idea. “I’m going to come back to the barn and hug all the staff and all the family,” he said. “So my house is wide open if anyone wants to come.”

Mystic Dan may have won the Derby in two minutes of maneuvering, but it took a million smaller minutes to create the masterpiece.

(Photo of jockey Brian J. Hernandez Jr. on Mystic Dan: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

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