The Big Payoff: Donerail’s Derby

April 17th, 2024

Talk to anyone who has bet on the Kentucky Derby, and they will have a story about their best winning bet where they scored on a longshot or hit the superfecta. The 150-year of the Run for the Roses has had its share of upsets, including horses like Rich Strike and Mine That Bird that surprised everyone and rewarded the faith of the few with handsome payouts. 

In 1913, Donerail became the talk of the town and the nation with his surprise Derby win, establishing a record that may never be broken. 

Not Quite a Derby Horse

Kentucky native Thomas P. Hayes traded tobacco farming for Thoroughbreds in the last decade of the 19th century, starting as an owner and trainer and then later adding breeder to his resume. One of his mares was Algie M., a daughter of Belmont Stakes winner Hanover who had not been a good racehorse herself and had yet to produce one. Hayes sent her to a young stallion, an English import named McGee. 

Ed Corrigan had already gained a reputation for knowing a good horse when he saw one, campaigning Modesty, the Kentucky Oaks and American Derby winner, and Corrigan won a Kentucky Derby with Riley in 1890. He imported McGee and had some success with him in sprints but no stakes wins to recommend him as a potential good sire. The sprinter’s first foals had yet to hit the track when Algie M. foaled a plain bay colt that Hayes would name Donerail after a local flag station on the Queen and Crescent Railway. 

Hayes waited until the fall of Donerail’s two-year-old season to start the colt, racing him 10 times in September and October. The colt emerged with two wins and three other in-the-money finishes including a third behind the filly Gowell in the Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs. His inconsistent form at two made him a longshot in the 1913 Derby winter book, but he did have at least one taker, a pedigree expert named William J. Treacy. 

A Last-Minute Addition 

Heading into the 39th Derby, Donerail’s name was far from the top of the list of contenders. Instead, horses like Ten Point, Foundation, and Gowell were the talk of the turf. Foundation had won the Blue Grass Stakes at the Kentucky Association track in Lexington, a race he won wire-to-wire while Donerail beat Gowell for second. Ten Point was a stakes winner in Maryland, taking the Walden Stakes at two and the Belair and Philadelphia Handicaps at three. 

The strength of their records made both Ten Point and Foundation the Derby favorites. Despite her stakes wins against colts and geldings, Gowell was a longshot as well, her odds 87-1 despite her winning record. Donerail’s lackluster start to his 1913 season left Hayes reluctant to try the Derby. Two stories about the colt’s entry exist, with Treacy claiming credit for encouraging Hayes and even paying the entry fee himself. The other holds that jockey Roscoe Goose, who had ridden Donerail in the Blue Grass, also was behind Hayes’ decision to enter his McGee colt. 

Despite also seeking the mount on Ten Point, the Louisville native had confidence in Donerail. The two had gotten on well in the Blue Grass, which was the colt’s best performance that spring, and the jockey thought Hayes’ horse had a chance. Goose and Treacy were among the few who gave Donerail any chance of winning. The Derby Day crowd of 30,000 largely ignored the inconsistent colt, sending him to the post at odds of 91.45-1. Though he was not the longest shot on the board – that would be Lord Marshall at 183-1 – Donerail was still lightly regarded – that is, until the field turned into the stretch. 

Faith’s Rich Reward

After an uneventful start, Ten Point had darted out to the lead with Foundation a length back in second. Goose had taken hold of Donerail at the start and stayed toward the middle of the pack of eight until the far turn. As Ten Point and Foundation began to tire, Donerail had a head full of steam, catching up to the leader with a sixteenth of a mile to go. The McGee colt passed the favorite in those final yards, pulling ahead to a half-length victory with Ten Point and Gowell claiming second and third. The crowd applauded Donerail as he returned to stand in the winner’s circle, collecting his garland of roses and the appreciation of the few who bet him. A $2 winning ticket paid $184.90, making Hayes’s colt the longest-priced winner of the Kentucky Derby in its 150-year history

Treacy’s faith in the McGee colt paid off for him: his $100 winter book bet on Donerail at 100-1 paid $10,000. He bought a house near the University of Kentucky with some of the money and then gambled away the rest. Donerail’s long odds paid off for the Derby and Churchill Downs as well, keeping the race and its home track in the news long after the payouts were complete. That notable edition coupled with a record-setting victory by Old Rosebud in 1914 and then Regret’s historic win in 1915 made the Kentucky Derby a national event, turning this regional race into a premier spring stakes race. 

Donerail did not replicate his Derby form again over his six seasons on the racetrack, eventually retiring to stud briefly and then put back into training after being gelded at age eight. He retired with 10 wins, 11 seconds, and 10 thirds in 62 starts, his 1913 Derby win his best performance of them all. Hayes continued to train, winning a Preakness with Head Play in 1933. Roscoe Goose retired from the saddle in 1918 to become a trainer, owner, and advisor to jockeys like Charley Kurtsinger. To his final days, the man in the saddle told the story of the longshot and his big payoff, a Derby to remember.