Kentucky Derby Odds History: ‘Street-Car Derby’ Featured One Of Five Biggest Favorites To Win

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Written By Eli Hershkovich | Last Updated
kentucky derby odds

Kentucky Derby betting opens the day before the race each year on horse racing apps, but the contenders aren’t as high-priced as some of the biggest favorites ever to win The Run For The Roses. Let’s dive into the history books and examine the horses that garnered the most hype in Kentucky Derby odds and managed to live up to it.

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Kentucky Derby odds history: biggest favorites to win

A pair of horses share the rightful title of shortest favorites to emerge victorious at Churchill Downs, clocking in at 2-5. However, they did so more than seven decades ago. Many horse-racing enthusiasts would fail to recall them, especially the earliest winners.

T1. Count Fleet (2-5) in 1943

Despite an injury in the Wood Memorial, Count Fleet recovered to win in Louisville at the shortest Kentucky Derby odds for a winner. That was after winning 10 of 15 starts as a two-year-old, an unfathomable number by modern standards.

Count Fleet became the sixth winner of the American Triple Crown. During his trot at the Belmont Stakes, he recorded a then-record margin of twenty-five lengths. In 1961, Count Fleet was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

The best part about the Count Fleet story is the 1943 Kentucky Derby was almost never run due to wartime restrictions. Colonel Matt Winn, president of Churchill Downs, organized it as a “street-car Derby.” Travel for out-of-state residents was not allowed. Local Kentucky residents were not allowed to drive their own cars to the event. Only street cars (public transportation) could be used.

Despite this, about 60,000 people attended and saw Count Fleet cash a small profit for his backers.

Count Fleet, with jockey John Longden up, crosses the finish line to win the 69th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., May 1, 1943. Blue Swords is three lengths behind in second place. In third place is Slide Rule. (AP Photo)

T1. Citation (2-5) in 1948

Citation would become the eighth American Triple Crown victor while delivering a first-place finish in 16 straight stakes races along the way. In Citation’s win at Churchill Downs, jockey Eddie Arcaro rode Citation along the rail position to begin the race before catching up to fellow contender Coaltown in the waning moments. They ran head-to-head briefly, but Citation showcased an extra burst down the stretch to finish handily three and a half lengths in front.

Citation (1) crosses the finish line three and one-half lengths ahead of his stablemate, Coal Town (1A), to win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 1, 1948. Trailing another three lengths is My Request (5). (AP Photo)

3. Seattle Slew (1-2) in 1977

It took another 29 years after Citation to find such a short favorite that won.

His Cinderella story began when he was reportedly purchased for just $17,500 because he looked like a mule. Nevertheless, Seattle Slew didn’t compile a single loss as a two- or three-year-old. Despite his slow start at the 1977 Kentucky Derby, Slew blitzed through the rest of the field — en route to winning this race and the American Triple Crown altogether.

Jockey Jean Cruguet, aboard Seattle Slew, rises in the saddle looking back as he drives his mount across the finish line at Churchill Downs to win the 103rd Kentucky Derby May 7, 1977 in Louisville, KY. Run Dusty Run, with Darrell McHargue up (just left of Seattle Slew) finished second and Sanhedrin (2) right, finished third. (AP Photo)

T4. Johnstown (3-5) in 1939

Oftentimes, you can’t move forward without looking back. That cliché holds up for this list, as Johnstown (3-5) is tied for the fourth-slimmest Kentucky Derby odds to win. In 1939, jockey James Stout led Johnston to knock off Challedon by eight lengths. In fact, he’s still tied with Old Rosebud (1914), Whirlaway (1941), and Assault (1948) for the largest winning margin in Derby history.

But Johnstown didn’t nab the Triple Crown like the previous winners mentioned in this story, falling to Challedon in the Preakness Stakes.

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With his famous trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, smiling toward the camera, Johnstown, winner of the 65th running of the Kentucky Derby, is shown in the winner’s circle after the race at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, May 6, 1939, with Jockey Jimmy Stout in the saddle.

T4. Spectacular Bid (3-5) in 1979

Hall of Fame trainer Bud Delp arguably worked with one of the greatest horses ever to be denied a Triple Crown.

After Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in 1979, the steel-gray, Kentucky-bred colt suffered a left hoof injury before taking off in the Belmont Stakes. But immediately after the race, Ronnie Franklin, Spectacular Bid’s jockey, was blamed for his inexperience as a 19-year-old rider. Some perceived it as the reason behind Spectacular Bid’s costly errors during the race.

Spectacular Bid took two months off to recover from the injury before returning with new rider Bill Shoemaker. He tagged along with him for the remainder of his career.

Spectacular Bid, with jockey Ronnie Franklin up, passes the twin spires of Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Derby horse race in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo, File)

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