Although representing just 8.3% of the 37,718 North American registered Thoroughbreds foals of 2001, gray/roan Thoroughbreds will likely occupy at least three – and perhaps as many as five – stalls in the 20-horse starting gate for the 130th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 1.
Three definite gray/roan starters are San Rafael Stakes (G2) winner Imperialism, Wood Memorial Stakes (G1) winner Tapit and Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Wimbledon. A fourth – Florida Derby (G1) runner-up Value Plus – has qualified for the Derby field based on earnings in graded stakes races but is considered unlikely to enter the race. Should two horses withdraw from the current Derby field, another gray/roan – Arkansas Derby (G2) third place finisher Pro Prado – would make the starting gate. (When the Kentucky Derby field is oversubscribed with more than 20 horses, preference is given to those Thoroughbreds with the highest cumulative earnings in graded stakes races.)
Although grays and roans have long been appreciated by racing fans, some horsemen have not held the colors in such high regard, according to Edward L. Bowen, racing historian and president of Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.
“Although some horsemen through the ages have harbored some old wives’ tale prejudice against grays, the gray coat of Native Dancer did not keep him from becoming one of the great race horses of all time and actually helped him develop a following in the days of black and white television,” he said. “Coincidentally, it was the year after Native Dancer lost the 1953 Kentucky Derby for his only defeat that Determine broke through as the first gray or roan ever to win the Derby.”
Determine then sired the second gray Kentucky Derby winner, Decidedly, who took the 1962 “Run for the Roses.” Since then there have been five other gray or roan Derby winners: Spectacular Bid (1978), Gato Del Sol (1982), Winning Colors (1988), Silver Charm (1997) and Monarchos (2001).
“So that’s seven in 50 years whereas there had been none in 80 years before that,” added Bowen.
Gray influences have existed since the early crosses that led to the modern Thoroughbred. A gray stallion known as the Lister Turk was imported into England prior to 1700 and appeared later in the pedigrees of all three bellwether stallions – Matchem, Herod and Eclipse – direct descendants of the three foundation stallions to which all modern Thoroughbreds trace. In the early 20th century, Roi Herode and his son, The Tetrarch, accounted for some of the gray color that followed from generation to generation of prominent horses. In the middle of the century, the gray Epsom Derby winner Mahmoud and then Native Dancer became prominent stallions and passed along the color.
Historically, the colors gray and roan were recognized separately by The Jockey Club on Certificates of Foal Registration. According to The Jockey Club’s Registrar Rick Bailey, the two color categories were merged beginning with the foal crop of 1993.
“Combining the two colors into one category reduced the number of corrections, saving breeders and owners the time and expense associated with filing for corrected Certificates of Foal Registration,” said Bailey.