Mystik Dan inspires a look at the closest finishes in Kentucky Derby history

May 5th, 2024

Mystik Dan’s victory in a three-way finish in Saturday’s 150th Kentucky Derby (G1), with Sierra Leone and Forever Young noses apart, immediately posed the question: was this the closest finish in the history of America’s iconic horse race?

Nine times, in the previous 149 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, the winner prevailed by a nose. But those were primarily two-horse duels, with a clearer margin back to third.

Kentucky Derby wins by a nose

Year/WinnerSecondMargin to third place
1889 SpokaneProctor Knott2 lengths to Once Again
1892 AzraHuron6 lengths to Phil Dwyer
1896 Ben BrushBen Eder8 lengths to Semper Ego
1898 PlauditLieber Karl20 lengths to Isabey
1902 Alan-a-DaleInventorHalf-length to The Rival
1933 Brokers TipHead Play4 lengths to Charley O
1957 Iron Liege*Gallant Man2 3/4 lengths to Round Table
1959 *Tomy LeeSword Dancer2 1/4 lengths to First Landing
1996 GrindstoneCavonnier3 1/2 lengths to Prince of Thieves
2024 Mystik DanSierra LeoneNose to Forever Young
Official photo finish of the 2024 Kentucky Derby

Official photo finish of the 2024 Kentucky Derby (Courtesy of Churchill Downs)

Thus as the table indicates, the 2024 Kentucky Derby delivered the closest finish among three combatants in the race's annals.

The finish of the 1902 Derby, with a nose to second and a half-length to third, wasn't an evenly-matched tussle. Rather, it was a case of Alan-a-Dale going lame while well in front, and legendary rider Jimmy Winkfield holding him together as the gallant colt persevered to the wire.

"He widened it to six after a half," the chart reports, "went lame in the stretch but carried on with flawless courage to win by a nose."

Alan-a-Dale recovered from the injury and went on to have a productive career as an older horse. Although he wasn't a notable sire, one of his daughters turns up deep in the maternal line of Sierra Leone and Forever Young.

Kentucky Derby wins by a head

But what about a three-way finish with the winning margin of a head?

Seven runnings of the Kentucky Derby were decided by a head. As with the winners by a nose, nearly all of these involved two rivals, clear of the third.

Year/WinnerSecondMargin to third place
1920 Paul JonesUpset4 lengths to On Watch
1921 Behave YourselfBlack Servant6 lengths to Prudery
1927 WhiskeryOsmand1 1/2 lengths to Jock
1936 Bold VentureBrevity6 lengths to Indian Broom
1947 Jet PilotPhalanxHead to Faultless
1953 Dark StarNative Dancer5 lengths to Invigorator
1997 Silver CharmCaptain Bodgit3 1/2 lengths to Free House

As the table indicates, the 1947 Kentucky Derby, with heads separating the victorious Jet Pilot from runner-up Phalanx and third Faultless, comes the nearest to approximating Saturday’s razor-thin margin.

The 5.40-1 Jet Pilot led throughout under jockey Eric Guerin, just reaching the wire ahead of 2-1 favorite Phalanx, who rallied from last. The 6-1 Faultless advanced from about midpack to take third, as the chart describes:

“Jet Pilot, alertly handled, assumed command at once, made the pace to the stretch under good rating and, responding readily when hard ridden in the drive, lasted to withstand Phalanx. The latter, away very sluggishly and outrun during the first half-mile, worked his way forward steadily thereafter and, taken out for the stretch run, finished fast and was getting to the winner at the end. Faultless, never far back and steadied along to the stretch, responded readily when set down in the drive, then closed strongly in a sharp effort.”

Faultless prevailed in their Preakness rematch, where Phalanx was third and Jet Pilot checked in fourth. But Phalanx ultimately ended up reigning as champion three-year-old. Romping in the Belmont, Phalanx added the Dwyer, Empire City, and most significantly, the Jockey Club Gold Cup over older horses.

Fans of Sierra Leone, the analog to Phalanx as the near-miss second in 2024, will hope that he too turns out to be the divisional champion.