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‘I believe in mojo.’ Lexington trainer earns rare double in thrilling Derby photo finish.

For the 150th renewal, you could not have asked for a more thrilling Kentucky Derby.

Trained by Lexingtonian Kenny McPeek, Mystik Dan edged hard-charging $2.3 million colt Sierra Leone and Japanese intruder Forever Young in a three-way photo finish by a nose (if that) to win a breathtaking Derby before 156,710 at Churchill Downs.

Not only did McPeek earn his first Kentucky Derby victory, in combination with Thorpedo Anna’s win in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, McPeek became the first trainer since the legendary Ben Jones in 1952 to pull off the Oaks/Derby double. Jones did it with Oaks winner Real Delight and Derby winner Hill Gail.

“Wow,” said McPeek on Saturday when asked about the feat.

“For three weeks, I felt like we were going to win both races, I can’t tell you why,” the trainer said. “I believe in mojo. I believe in positive energy and we had a lot of that.”

Brian Hernandez Jr. became the first jockey to win both the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby since Calvin Borel in 2009 on Rachel Alexandra in the Oaks and Mine That Bird in the Derby.

Kenny McPeek, the trainer for Mystik Dan, celebrates winning the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Kenny McPeek, the trainer for Mystik Dan, celebrates winning the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby.

A homebred owned by Arkansas’ Lance Gasaway, 4 G Racing, Daniel Hamby III and Valley View Farm, Mystik Dan won in a time of 2:03 3/5. At odds of 18-1, he paid $39.22 to win, $16.32 to place and $10 to show. The son of Goldencents had won the Southwest Stakes by 8 lengths on a muddy track at Oaklawn on Feb. 3, but had finished third behind Muth and Just Steel in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on May 30.

“I’m pinching myself, wondering if this is real,” Gasaway said. “You just won the biggest horse race in America. Who would have dreamed it?”

The 61-year-old McPeek won the 2002 Belmont Stakes with Sarava and the 2020 Preakness with the filly Swiss Skydiver, but was 0-for-9 in his home state’s famous race. His best finish was second with Tejano Run all the way back in 1995.

It was a heartbreaking loss for the connections of Sierra Leone, who had won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 6. With a deep closing running style, Sierra Leone made a strong move to the finish but came up a nose short.

Mystik Dan, right with Brian Hernandez Jr. up, wins the 150th Kentucky Derby.
Mystik Dan, right with Brian Hernandez Jr. up, wins the 150th Kentucky Derby.

“It’s a tough one,” said Chad Brown, trainer of Sierra Leone. “It’s professional sport, when you’re at this level you’re going to win some and lose some and often times it’s a game of inches.”

The previously unbeaten Forever Young was attempting to be the first Japanese-bred to win the Kentucky Derby. In the middle between Mystik Dan and Sierra Leone, Forever Young finished third.

Sierra Leone paid $6.54 to place and $4.64 to show. Forever Young paid $5.58 to show. The $1 exacta of 3-2 paid $129.28.

Morning line and post-time favorite Fierceness, the 13 1/2-length winner of the Florida Derby, challenged for the lead for most of the race, but faded badly in the stretch. Owned by Mike Repole and trained by Todd Pletcher, Fierceness was 15th.

The finish was a terrific ending to a terrific day that included Churchill showing off its new $200 million paddock for a group of celebrities including Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl champion tight end and Taylor Swift boyfriend Travis Kelce, Martha Stewart (who nearly misspoke during the traditional “Riders Up” command by saying the “Commonwealth of Connecticut”), “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, new Kentucky basketball coach Mark Pope and now former UK basketball star Reed Sheppard, among others.

Friday’s Kentucky Oaks was contested over a sloppy track. The Churchill surface was listed as muddy for the opening races on Saturday, but it had dried to a fast track with a temperature of 80 degrees by the 6:57 p.m. post time for the Kentucky Derby.

This was the third consecutive Kentucky Derby without trainer Bob Baffert, who has a record-tying six Derby victories to his credit, including a pair of Triple Crown winners (American Pharoah in 2015, Justify in 2018).

The California-based Baffert was initially suspended for two years after his trainee Medina Spirit hit the finish line first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby only to be disqualified after testing positive for betamethasone, banned on race day. Last July, Churchill Downs, Inc. extended Baffert’s suspension through 2024 for what it said was the trainer continuing “to peddle a false narrative concerning the failed drug test of Medina Spirit.”

Owner Amr Zedan opted to stick with Baffert instead of transferring his star 3-year-old Muth to an eligible trainer. After winning the Arkansas Derby, Muth is being pointed to the May 18 Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. Zedan also owned Medina Spirit.

But this Kentucky Derby Day belonged to Mystik Dan and McPeek, the trainer who had earned his 2,000th victory as a trainer back in February. But for the Tates Creek High School and University of Kentucky graduate to finally win the Kentucky Derby was a dream come true.

“It means everything,” McPeek said. “It’s been an amazing journey.”

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