Faded Glory: Forgotten Kentucky Derby Winners (Omar Khayyam, 1917)

April 5th, 2024

The list of Kentucky Derby victors currently stands at 149 names long, a roster of horses famed and forgotten, each with a story of their own. In its fifth decade, the historic equine contest emerged from its lean years with new vigor, ignited by a longshot filly, and in 1917, another first for America’s signature race — an international victor.

British Beginnings

The 1910s had been a decade of upheaval in racing: when anti-gambling laws forced New York racetracks to close from 1911-1913. A contingent of jockeys, trainers, and horses crossed the Atlantic to try their luck in England. During World War I, the trend went in the other direction, as European breeders and owners, with more limited opportunities to race and challenges feeding and maintaining their bloodstock, sold their stock to American interests. In 1916 alone, about 350 yearlings, including future stars War Cloud and Sun Briar, made the voyage from England to the United States for owners like A.K. Macomber and Willis Sharpe Kilmer.

The year before, trainer Charles Patterson traveled to the Newmarket December yearling sale for his bosses, Frederick Johnson and Cornelius K.G. Billings. There, he spotted a chestnut colt by English stakes winner Marco out of Lisma, a daughter of dual English classic winner Persimmon, and got this great-great grandson of the first English Triple Crown winner West Australian for 300 guineas ($1,500). Once settled into his new home in Patterson’s barn, the Marco colt got a name, Omar Khayyam, his new moniker inspired by the Persian mathematician and poet. 

His juvenile season showed a snapshot of what he would become at age three; Omar Khayyam started five times in 1916, winning once with two seconds in the Hopeful and the Piping Rock Invitational, his best stakes showings. Despite his inconsistent performances on the track, Patterson knew the colt possessed his sire’s speed and his grandsires’ staying power, telling a reporter that “When I tried him, he frightened me — he was so fast. I tried him a second time to see if it was right. It was.”

Patterson had seen Omar Khayyam’s potential when he first spied the chestnut colt in the sales ring; at three, that potential would turn into a champion. 

Dominant on Derby Day

With the Kentucky Derby as their goal, Patterson sent Omar Khayyam to the Kentucky Association racetrack in Lexington to face a field of other possible starters in the nine-furlong Derby Trial on May 8. In his first start after an eight-month layoff, the Marco colt was nearly knocked to his knees at the start and poured on the speed to run midpack throughout, but tired to finish fourth behind Hal Price Headley’s Ticket. Four days later, both colts joined thirteen others at Churchill Downs for the 43rd Derby. 

Just before 5 p.m., Stargazer showed first, leading the field to the barrier. Sporting blinkers for the first time, Omar Khayyam went to the post at nearly 13-1 while a nervous Ticket, the even-money favorite, pranced his way to the line. Starter Harry Morrissey needed four minutes to get them all in line, triggering the barrier and sending the field away. Ticket showed first, but Stargazer soon took over as John McTaggart tucked the favorite behind the leaders. Taking up position on the rail in 10th, Omar Khayyam and jockey Charles Borel gained steadily on the backstretch, winding their way to sixth before being bounced around by the shuffling horses around them. Around the far turn, the leaders went wide leaving the rail open for Omar Khayyam; Borel gave his colt the cue and they swept into the stretch in hot pursuit of Ticket on the lead. 

In the waning yards of the 10-furlong test, Omar Khayyam steadily gained ground and passed Ticket in the final jumps to win by two lengths. His victory was a historic one as the Marco colt became the first foreign-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby. Because the United States had entered the First World War just weeks before, the 1917 edition featured a detail from the First Kentucky Regiment, who raised the American flag to the cheers of the more than 35,000 present. 

In this era before the Triple Crown, the Derby and Preakness schedule did not always line up for a horse to try both. For Omar Khayyam, racing at Pimlico would have been impossible as the Preakness went off seven minutes earlier on the same day! 

Winning Ways

Three weeks later, the war prompted Billings and Johnson to dissolve their partnership so both could focus on their respective businesses and government work. In the paddock at Belmont Park, their 13 horses were auctioned off, with the Derby winner as the star of the show. Several prominent owners put in their bids, including Macomber and Kilmer, but Canadian businessman Wilfed Viau was the last man standing, bidding $26,600 for the chestnut colt. 

For Viau, Omar Khayyam would win the Brooklyn Derby (now the Dwyer Stakes), the Travers Stakes, the Lawrence Realization, and the Saratoga Cup. His success at three did not translate to his four- and five-year-old seasons; his racing career done, the English-bred Derby winner retired to a modest stud career at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. He sired Aga Khan, an early stakes winner for William Woodward’s Belair Stable, and Mr. Khayyam, who won the Wood Memorial and Metropolitan Handicap for Madelaine Austin’s Catawba Farm. 

With his wide white blaze and hind socks, the English-bred Omar Khayyam was a flashy colt whose talent and determination brought him a Kentucky Derby victory, the first of four foreign-bred horses to wear the roses.