How Mystic Don Won the 150th Kentucky Derby: Champion People and Moments

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Everything about a life-changing event can be over in two minutes: every move, every decision, even every non-decision. Besides, it’s not just the moves, decisions, and non-decisions made in those two minutes; It’s a lifetime of split-ending choices that make a life and, in one case, a bad Saturday evening, make history.

Unraveling the story of Kentucky Derby winner Mystic Don’s historic journey on the train and in the record books requires more than rewinding around the Churchill Downs track. These include the decision not to bail on a dinner date 30-plus years ago, and searching through the blood cache in the basement of the college library years before that. A retired mango and a father need dedication to convince his son to fall in love with horse racing. A jockey has to study another rail-rider, and a partnership between a collection of people who compete with big names, but who purposely doesn’t care about being one of them.

In the race’s historic 150th running, Mystic Don held his breath for the first three-horse photo finish since 1947, beating second-placed Sierra Leone and third-placed Forever Young. Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. was so certain of what happened that he asked an outsider while easing Mystic Dawn if he should win the Kentucky Derby.

It took five minutes for the answer to come, and the 156,710 spectators on hand erupted in joy as the three horses neared the wire and fell into stunned silence.

Finally, Mystic Don’s name flashed on the big board and the crowd in the stands cheered as the outsider shared the news with Hernandez. “It took about two minutes, and then when they finally said, ‘Yeah, you won the Kentucky Derby,’ I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a long two minutes. That’s the longest two minutes in sports — from the fastest two minutes to the longest.'”

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Perhaps the only person who wasn’t surprised was coach Ken McPeek. The Kentucky-based coach practically made it like Babe Ruth and called his shot all week. On Friday, as he sat in a press conference to celebrate his Kentucky Oaks winner Torpedo Anna, it was suggested he might return to another successful presser the next day. “Count it,” he said. After the promise was made, McPeek celebrated on the track, clutching his daughter Annie’s hand.

By pairing the winning ride with Torpedo Anna, McPeak became the first trainer since Ben Jones in 1952 to win the Kentucky Oaks-Kentucky Derby double title, and Hernandez the first jockey to do so since Calvin Borrell in 2009.

Hernandez suited Borel as well. Hernandez studied the videos for the long view of the race that creates something like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and how even the most inconvenient results can lead to an epic career. Calvin was known as Bo-Rail around the Boreal track for his love and comfort of riding on rails, a spot many jockeys prefer to avoid. When Mystic Dawn finished third, Hernandez and McPeek began talking about how they could turn what they considered a disadvantage into an advantage. Hernandez found the secret sauce in Borel’s recaps of his rides.

Sharilyn Causeway, one of Mystic Dawn’s owners, has her 150th Kentucky Derby trophy.

Immediately Here and Now, Mystic Don took the 1 ¼ miles in 2:03.34, winning the race as Hernandes Jr. led the horse in a spectacular ride. He followed Track Phantom to the rail, and when the lead horse gave him half-a-step’s worth of room, he squeezed Mystic Dawn into the narrow gap that opened up as a sliver of light under the door frame and held the finish line to win. A nose. Favorite Fierceness finished 15th.

But the race was won long before Hernandez mentioned the video. Success came 40 years ago when a young McPeek buried himself in the University of Kentucky Agricultural Library to educate himself on BloodHorse and complete records. Brought to Keeneland by his grandfather, McPeak had never done anything other than horse racing. His Ag Library basement courses may have earned him better grades than his normal coursework, but he jokes that that’s because he’s fueled a passion.

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All that reading and poking around has created a kind of horse racing everyman. He loves to touch every bit of horse racing and is as respected as a bloodstock agent as a trainer. He created an app for replays – Horses Now. He is a big believer in the industry, well-liked and well-respected among his peers for his loyalty and dignity and his willingness to keep things simple. Horse racing is a big business, and an expensive one, with animals often owned by conglomerates rather than individuals. McPeek deliberately tried to avoid that approach. “I think I’m very proud that we don’t do Calumet farm horses,” he said, citing the large breeding association in Lexington. “We did it with working-class horses.”

McPeek trained Mystic Dawn’s mare, and when she retired, he convinced Lance, Brent and Sharilyn Causeway not to retire her, but to breed her with the 2013 Derby entrant Goldencents. What they agreed goes back to the owners’ faith in McPeek, but their own horse racing roots and their small moments led them to a small-ish racehorse with big wins.

Lance Causeway, you could argue, is the Mystic Don of college football. I mean, maybe a little overlooked. An accomplished player and Hall of Famer, he starred not at Arkansas, but at Arkansas-Monticello, where he was an NAIA All-American with the Boll Weevils. He got into horse racing at the urging of his father, Clint, and the two were partners at their home track, Oaklawn. Their biggest and best shot came with Wells Bayou, who won the Louisiana Derby and was aiming for the Kentucky Derby until Covid struck and moved the race to September.

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Clint had died a year ago, and as Lance sat on stage, he got a little choked up as he remembered his father’s influence. “For me, it’s for him,” he said. “Dad would love it. He loved the sport.”But a few years ago, when Mame was about to retire, Clint was too old to be involved in raising horses. Lance wanted to bring his first cousin, Brent.

Thirty-five years ago, Brent was supposed to meet his wife, Sharilyn, for a date, but he was late. And then later. He was on the track and still racing. Sharyl was thrilled — at least until Brent popped the question that night. When Sharilyn quit her full-time job, the couple chose to pursue horse racing full-time, while Clint and Lance ventured into the sport. When Lance needed a new partner for breeding, finally, in Mystic Don’s franchise, Sharilyn and Brent made perfect sense.

Seated side by side, sandwiched between McPeek and Hernandez, Lance and Sharilyn both looked slightly wide-eyed and gleefully dazed. Asked how they might celebrate, Lance said, “I don’t know. I’ve never won a derby before.

Neither does McBeeke. But now, with a triple crown of his own — he won the Preakness with a Swiss skydiver in 2020 and a Belmont circuit in 2002 — he at least had a clue. “I’m going to go back to the barn and hug all the staff and all the families,” he said. “My house is open if anyone wants to come later.”

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

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

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