Tall Tales of the Track, Kentucky Derby Edition: Watch Out!

June 7th, 2024

All eyes were on the gray colt from Maryland, a superstar in the making as the 1979 Kentucky Derby (G1) approached. His competition included General Assembly, a son of the immortal Secretariat, and Flying Paster, the best of the West Coast contenders. Nine names were dropped into the entry box the Thursday before Derby, and then, with 10 minutes to go, an entry taken by phone surprised a room full of experienced racetrackers: Great Redeemer.

This maiden colt became a part of Derby history thanks to his unconventional connections and inauspicious Run for the Roses, including a close call of the photographic kind.

Unshakable Faith

Texas radiologist Dr. James A. Mohamed liked to dabble in training and racing; at one time, he had 35 horses in training, but the expenses caught up to him, forcing Mohamed to sell off his stable. A native of Trinidad who completed his medical studies in Canada, he was once the leading trainer at the defunct Dufferin Park in Toronto before moving south. In 1978, Mohamed bought a colt by Holy Land out of the mare Princeton Co-Ed from a Maryland two-year-old sale for $2,100. Named for both his sire and for Mohamed’s own born-again Christian beliefs, Great Redeemer did not race at two and made his first start at Oaklawn Park in mid-March 1979, finishing ninth. 

Trainer Jim James did the best he could with the Maryland-bred, but Great Redeemer did not show much in the way of talent. In his first six starts, he lost by a total of 84 1/2 lengths, his best finish a third in the Derby Trial on May 1, four days before the Derby. For Mohamed, that performance showed that his colt had potential; for every other Derby starter, Great Redeemer’s entry into the Derby sparked incredulity. To everyone except his owner, the colt had no business being in the big race. Even his trainer quit when Mohamed entered his colt, paying the $7,600 entry fees for his maiden to be a part of the 105th Kentucky Derby. 

Mohamed, though, was secure in his faith and applied for a Kentucky trainer’s license so that he could saddle his horse. Great Redeemer stood in his stall at Keeneland unaware of the furor he had inspired and the part he would soon play in Derby history.

Close Call  

Mohamed named Richard DePass – who had never met the owner/trainer – to ride the Holy Land colt. That news was news to the jockey and his agent, but DePass was not about to pass up this chance to ride in the Derby, even if he was on the longest of shots. At the post position draw, Arkansas Derby (G2) winner Golden Act drew post 1, Spectacular Bid post 3, and Great Redeemer post 2, right between them. Bud Delp was not worried about the situation, confident that the Bid could elude any potential hindrance. 

Over a fast track, Spectacular Bid proved Delp right, taking the lead in the stretch and finishing 2 3/4 lengths ahead of General Assembly at the wire. Then came Golden Act, King Celebrity, Flying Paster, Screen King, Sir Ivor Again, Shamgo, and Lot O’ Gold. Thinking that the latter was the last horse, photographers scrambled from the rail toward the turf course to join the fray in the winner’s circle. One got across with no trouble, but two more found themselves in the path of a straggling Great Redeemer still coming down the stretch. 

DePass shouted at the two who laughed as they scrambled to get out of the way. Great Redeemer, whose sire had clipped heels and fallen during the 1970 Kentucky Derby, crossed the wire 10th and last, 47 1/2 lengths behind Spectacular Bid. “He finished 12th in a 10-horse field,” joked Don Alvey, Depass’s agent. “There were nine horses and three photographers ahead of him.” 

Like Holy Land, Great Redeemer became part of the story of the Kentucky Derby, but not for the reasons their connections ever imagined. 

Happy Ending

Spectacular Bid went on to a Hall of Fame career where he set records and won 26 of his 30 starts. Great Redeemer had a different experience: Mohamed found him with a mysterious four-inch knife wound at Laurel later that year and then sold him for $2,500. The Holy Land colt broke his maiden for different connections the following year. He retired at age nine with five wins in 58 starts and earned less than $20,000 in his career.

Don’t cry for Great Redeemer for his story has a happy ending. Bob and Diane King bought the gelded son of Holy Land and gave him a second chance. They rehabilitated the injured and neglected horse, raced him, and then turned him into a hunter and show horse who won a collection of blue ribbons in his time in the ring, competing the whole time with his racetrack name. 

"I usually change a horse's name when I make one into a hunter,” Diane King said. “But I decided not to change his. He'll always be Great Redeemer. I think any horse who runs in the Kentucky Derby should keep his name."