This column originally ran in this week's edition of The Voice-Tribune
It's the best week of the year to be a Louisvillian, and don't let anyone ever tell you any differently. In a mere matter of hours we'll all be afforded the opportunity to teach our out-of-town friends what an exacta box is, pretend like we know how to read a program, temporarily freakout when we lose our out-of-town friends, see none of our race predictions come to fruition, and listen to our out-of-town friends talk about how they think they saw Travis Tritt while they were lost. It's all part of the majesty of the city's biggest moment.
Derby also, for me at least, always marks the end of the college hoops mourning period around these parts, and officially ushers in the endless offseason where we dive to extreme depths to find sports topics to talk and write about.
In the spirit of combining both of these storied traditions, I thought it would be fun to look through all of history's Kentucky Derby champions, and see which ones best resembled the U of L sports stars of today.
Russ Smith - Whirlaway (1941)
I'm not sure there has ever been a more appropriate crossover sports comparison than Russ Smith to the 1941 Derby champion. Whirlaway's trainer, Ben Jones, once referred to the colt as "crazy, stupid, ornery, vicious....and brilliant." It's as close to a Pitino-ism as you're ever going to get from the world of thoroughbred racing.
Much like the sophomore Russ Smith who thrived at times despite never looking like he was sure about what he was doing, Whirlaway ran straight to the outside rail in his first race and proceeded to follow it the entire way. Naturally, he still won. Whirlaway went on to win the 1941 Triple Crown and every major Horse of the Year Award handed out. He won a few more high-profile races before entering stud at age six. I have a feeling Russ' professional career will last a bit longer.
Teddy Bridgewater - Smarty Jones (2004)
It's been amazing to watch Bridgewater get picked apart and scrutinized by just about every NFL executive and media member in the world, especially considering that he was considered a lock to be a top five pick for the duration of his junior season at Louisville. The complaints over things like the size of his hands and the lack of movement in his torso when he throws to his left are reminiscent of what Smarty Jones faced during Derby Week a decade ago.
Despite being the only undefeated Derby horse at Churchill, critics said Smarty was too small to handle the 20-horse field and the step up in competition. His pedigree was also pointed to as evidence that he wouldn't be able to cope with the mile and a quarter distance. In the end, Smarty romped to a Derby victory in the mud to become the first undefeated champion since 1977, and then nearly became the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
Luke Hancock - Tomy Lee (1959)
It was the belief of Fred Turner Jr., a millionaire oilman and rancher from Texas, that horses needed companionship in order to thrive. For that reason alone, Turner Jr. made the thoughtless purchase of Tomy Lee in 1956, a horse whose sole purpose at the time was to serve as a companion for a much larger purchase made the same day. Despite Rick Pitino referring to Hancock as the "best player on the team" during the season he sat out at UofL, most Cardinal fans believed the eventual Final Four Most Outstanding Player would never make much of an impact in the Derby City.
Like Hancock, who transferred to Louisville from George Mason after his sophomore season, Tomy Lee came to Kentucky from an unfamiliar place. The horse, which was born in the United Kingdom, remains the most recent foreign-born horse to win the Derby, and is only one of two non-American thoroughbreds to achieve the feat. If that isn't enough to sell you on the comparison, then consider the fact that Tomy Lee was known to consistently "use his body" to secure wins down the stretch, a move UofL's "Slow Mobster" would certainly appreciate.
Chane Behanan - Behave Yourself (1921)
Montrezl Harrell - Citation (1948)
Often referred to as a "machine," Citation was both the most intimidating horse of his time and a model of consistency. He won the 1948 Derby by 3 1/2 lengths over stablemate Coaltown, and went on to win the Preakness and Belmont by even wider margins. Citation owns the remarkable distinction of running 44 races in his career and only finishing out of the frame once. He also holds the record for most stakes wins in a year, an incredible 17 in 1948.
History doesn't say whether or not Citation ever shattered a backboard, a feat Harrell reportedly achieved earlier this week while playing pick-up in North Carolina, but my guess is he probably didn't.
David Levitch - Majestic Prince (1966)
The Louisville basketball program is a perfect 18-0 all-time in games in which Levitch has appeared. Majestic Prince was raced lightly in his first year and was then a perfect 8-0 after becoming the first undefeated Kentucky Derby champion in 47 years. Also, the ladies love Levitch in the Derby City, so bonus points for the appropriate name.
DeVante Parker - Grindstone (1996)
A long, powerful horse bred in the state of Kentucky who rose to the moment and nipped Cavoneer at the wire in '96 is the perfect comparison for the former Ballard High star, who seems to make a highlight-worthy play every time he touches the ball. While Grindstone has been retired to stud in Oregon for years, Parker will be catching passes against ACC foes inside Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for one more fall. For that difference, we're all thankful.