MC Hammer, Bacharach & Steinbrenner: Kentucky Derby celebrities are uniquely fans and participants

April 11th, 2023

Kentucky Derby Celebrities infographic

The First Jewel of the Triple Crown is a cultural treasure to participate in

Befitting its status as one of the leading sporting events in the country and known throughout the world, the Kentucky Derby has attracted its share of celebrity attendees and admirers over the years.

However, what differentiates the Derby from, say, the Super Bowl or Wimbledon, is that not only can well-known personalities come to Churchill Downs to watch the big race, but they also have an opportunity, however small the chances, to actually participate in it.

The Royal Procession of Queen Elizabeth the Second arriving at Royal Ascot (Photo by Sorge)

In contrast to England, where the monarchial head of state has generally been one of the sport’s identifiable patrons for generations, nationally recognized figures from the entertainment and sports world are more likely to give racing, and by extension the Kentucky Derby, a higher profile in the U.S. There have been several notable examples over the past three decades or so.

The Dance Floor and Spot 'Lite'

At the height of his commercial success on the pop charts, Grammy Award-winning rapper MC Hammer and his family became one of racing’s most successful owners. Their most prominent runner was Lite Light, a near champion three-year-old filly in 1991 when she won four Grade 1 races, including the Kentucky Oaks by an astounding 10 lengths.

MC Hammer was back at Churchill in the spring of 1992, but that time with a colt he purchased as part of a three-horse package for a reported $430,000. The aptly-named Dance Floor had won the Breeders’ Futurity and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes as a two-year-old, and then solidified his Kentucky Derby credentials by winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in his three-year-old debut.

Although he entered the Derby as a 33-1 longshot after two subsequent losses following the Fountain of Youth, Dance Floor ran a terrific race. Leading the field passing the quarter pole, Dance Floor fought tenaciously through the stretch before weakening to third behind longshot winner Lil E. Tee. For a horse with distance limitations, Dance Floor also ran creditably two weeks later when finishing fourth in the Preakness at Pimlico, and ultimately retired with earnings of $863,000.

Dance Floor was bred in New Jersey, not known as a consistent source of top-flight Thoroughbred talent. Neither is West Virginia, but that didn’t stop the celebrated tunesmith Burt Bacharach from having his best Kentucky Derby hopefuls born in the Mountaineer State.

Keep the hits coming

Bacharach, who died in February at age 94, composed a countless number of hit songs that permeated the pop charts for decades. While Bacharach also began his affiliation with racing at the height of his prominence, in the 1960s, he achieved his greatest success as an owner later on.

A decade after campaigning 1983 champion three-year-old filly Heartlight No. One, Bacharach was back in the racing spotlight in back-to-back renewals of the Kentucky Derby with a pair of colts he bred himself in West Virginia. The first was Soul of the Matter, who won the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita in advance of the 1994 Derby, in which he finished fifth behind Go for Gin.

Like fine wine, Soul of the Matter improved with age. He arguably ran the best race of his life in his final career start, the inaugural Dubai World Cup in 1996, in which he was beaten a mere half-length by the mighty Cigar.

Soul of the Matter finished 2nd to Southern Rythym in the Lexington Stakes April 24, 1994. (Photo courtesy of the Keeneland Association) Please ask permission prior to use.

Bacharach’s other colt, Afternoon Deelites, entered the 1995 Derby with a stronger record than Soul of the Matter had the year before. A Grade 1 winner at two, Afternoon Deelites also won the San Felipe en route to Kentucky, and had just missed by a head in the Santa Anita Derby in his final prep.

Sent off at 8-1, Afternoon Deelites wound up finishing eighth in the Derby behind Thunder Gulch. He would not race again for more than seven months, but concluded his career winning two of his final five starts, including the Malibu Stakes. Soul of the Matter and Afternoon Deelites collectively earned more than $2.5 million.

Afternoon Deelites wins the Commonwealth S. with jockey Kent Desormeaux on April 14, 1996. (Photo courtesy of the Keeneland Association) Please ask permission prior to use.

Taking more shots (five) at the Kentucky Derby than either MC Hammer and Burt Bacharach was the late George Steinbrenner, the outspoken and mercurial owner of the New York Yankees. Steinbrenner was involved in racing nearly as long as he was in baseball, breeding and racing Thoroughbreds under the banner of Kinsman Stable.

More than one past time

In the same year the Yankees would win their first World Series title for him, Steinbrenner was represented in the 1977 Kentucky Derby by a colt named Steve’s Friend. Unfortunate to come along in the same year as Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, Steve’s Friend ran creditably to finish fifth, only 5 1/4 lengths behind the Hall of Fame winner.

Although he fared less well in the Derby than Steve’s Friend, Concerto was a more accomplished horse for Steinbrenner, who also bred the colt. Concerto entered the 1997 Kentucky Derby on a five-race win streak, encompassing preps at Churchill, Aqueduct, Turfway Park, and Pimlico.

As was the case with Steve’s Friend, the competition proved too tough as Concerto finished a distant ninth behind another Hall of Fame colt, Silver Charm. Concerto would ultimately bankroll more than $1.3 million.

Little Lady wins the 1977 Debutante S. with jockey Ron Turcotte, owner George Steinbrenner, III. (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum/Churchill Downs)

Steinbrenner’s best chance for Derby glory occurred in 2005, five years before his death. Bellamy Road, a son of Concerto Steinbrenner purchased at auction for $87,000, entered that year’s edition with back-to-back, double-digit margin victories, including a 17 1/2-length romp in the Wood Memorial, in which he earned a monstrous 115 Brisnet Speed Rating.

Unsure whether they were looking at the next coming of Secretariat, or a horse highly susceptible to regress off such an other-worldly performance, the betting public made Bellamy Road a lukewarm 5-2 favorite. The skeptics were proven right when Bellamy Road failed to fire, finishing seventh to 50-1 outsider Giacomo.

In his only post-Derby start, Bellamy Road finished a strong second in the Travers Stakes following a long layoff, proof perhaps that he could have been a serious racehorse if only he had been more sound. Nonetheless, Bellamy Road proved a bargain as he earned nearly 10 times his purchase price.

It is unknown who the next widely recognized owner of a Kentucky Derby prospect will be. Suffice it to say there are many out there who would love an opportunity to catch a whiff of red roses just as much as walking down Churchill Downs’ red carpet.