by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am

By Ray Paulick

In the winter and spring of 1980, as a relatively new racing fan living in Southern California I was confident that I had discovered the certain winner of that year's Kentucky Derby: a colt named Rumbo, who had a few mental quirks but possessed a powerful stretch run.

Rumbo finished second in the Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derbies, but I was convinced the extra furlong of the Kentucky Derby would be all this colt would need to get the job done and confirm my brilliance as a handicapper. Besides, Codex, the winner of the two Derbies in Southern California who was trained by a new hotshot from the Quarter horse world named D. Wayne Lukas, wouldn't be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs come the first Saturday in May. His connections didn't think to nominate him to the Derby, and there were no supplemental entries to the race back then.

The field for that year's Run for the Roses didn't seem particularly strong, especially in comparison to the decade that had just ended, one that produced Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, along with Spectacular Bid, who in my opinion should have won the Triple Crown in 1979.

Rockhill Native was the tepid Derby favorite and reigning 2-year-old champion, but just didn't strike me as a real Derby horse. Besides, he was a gelding, and no gelding had won America's great horserace since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Second choice was Plugged Nickle, winner of the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial. It just didn't seem right to me that a horse with that name (and misspelled at that) could join the ranks of Kentucky Derby winners.

In fact, the biggest threat I saw to Rumbo was another California colt, but this one had a girl's name, Jaklin Klugman, the sorta namesake of actor Jack Klugman.

Oh, yes, there was a real filly in that race, too, Genuine Risk, but I hardly gave her a second thought. Fillies couldn't win the Derby. That hadn't happened since Regret in 1915, and no filly had even tried to beat the boys since Silver Spoon finished fifth to Tomy Lee in 1959. The image of the tragic injury to the great filly Ruffian in her match race only a few years earlier against Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was still fresh in my mind. Trainer LeRoy Jolley had already tried Genuine Risk against colts, finishing third to Plugged Nickle and Colonel Moran in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York. Though it was her first career defeat after six consecutive wins, I couldn't see Genuine Risk improving off that effort.

Besides, I was certain she'd be helpless against the mighty Rumbo down the long stretch of Churchill Downs.

That wasn't the first time I was wrong about a horse race, and it certainly wasn't (nor will be) the last.

Rumbo, under Laffit Pincay Jr., dropped back to trail the 13-horse field, just as I expected him to do, but he came with a strong rally around the final turn. He flew by the dueling pace-setters, Rockhill Native and Plugged Nickel and caught Jaklin Klugman inside the furlong pole. But there was nothing he could do about the filly. Jacinto Vasquez deftly guided her through early traffic, moved to the lead before reaching the top of the stretch, then easily held off Rumbo to win by a length as a 13-1 long shot.

My only consolation to being wrong was that it took an historic achievement to beat me. But my appreciation for Genuine Risk was just beginning.

Two weeks later, in the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore, Genuine Risk proved that her Derby win was no fluke. Codex, benefitting from his owner's forgetfulness to nominate him to the first leg of the Triple Crown, was a fresh horse. On his back that day was Angel Cordero Jr., a sometimes controversial jockey who could have written a book about the tactics of race riding. The duo got the jump on Genuine Risk, stalking the early leaders and taking command on the turn for home, just as Vasquez had done on the filly in the Derby.

But as Genuine Risk launched her move on the turn for home, Cordero peeked back over his right shoulder and saw the filly coming. He allowed Codex to drift far off the rail and almost directly into the path of Genuine Risk, then flashed the whip in his right hand as the two horses brushed together at the top of the stretch. It was a move clearly intended to intimidate the filly, and it worked. Vasquez later said Cordero hit Genuine Risk in the head with his whip and did it on purpose.

Codex went on to win by 4 ¾ lengths, with Genuine Risk second. A claim of foul was dismissed by track stewards, as was an appeal to the Maryland Racing Commission by Bert and Diana Firestone, the owners of Genuine Risk. Many fans of the filly felt cheated.

Flash ahead to 2008 and ask yourself, how many owners today would persevere and run a Kentucky Derby-winning filly in the Belmont Stakes after two hard races at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, one who had no hope of becoming a Triple Crown winner? It's hard to imagine anyone would be that sporting. The Firestones were.

But Genuine Risk was no ordinary filly. She ran back three weeks later in the Belmont in a rematch against Codex, who was made the 8-5 favorite. Rumbo, who had skipped the Preakness, was there, too, as the second choice in the betting. The fans had virtually given up on Genuine Risk, who was sent off at odds of 9-1.

Genuine Risk ran gamely over the mile and a half of the Belmont, battling Rockhill Native much of the way over a muddy racetrack. She put that foe away at the top of the stretch, but couldn't hold off Temperence Hill, a 53-1 outsider who hadn't contested either of the two prior Triple Crown events and was the only horse in the field wearing mud calks. Codex and Rumbo were non-factors. Genuine Risk finished a gallant second, securing her place as the greatest filly ever to compete in all three Triple Crown races.

This Kentucky-bred filly by Exclusive Native out of the Gallant Man mare Virtuous wasn't finished yet. After a short break, she came back to narrowly lose the Maskette to Bold 'n Determined,  then won the Ruffian Handicap by a nose over Misty Gallore and It's in the Air. It was a great year for fillies, one that also included Davona Dale and Love Sign.

But none was greater than Genuine Risk, who was made that year's 3-year-old champion and was a first-ballot inductee in the Hall of Fame.

Genuine Risk never duplicated her racing performances as a broodmare before her death this week at the age of 31. Her fertility difficulties were a frustration to all. The expectations placed on great fillies by the public somehow don't seem fair anyways.

Genuine Risk did more than enough in that five-week stretch in the spring of 1980 to secure her place in history.


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