To this day, trainer LeRoy Jolley maintains he never had a horse try harder than Genuine Risk.
And to this day, Jolley knows her tenacity was matched only by her ability to capture hearts.
“Everyone who worked with her was absolutely in love with her,” Jolley recalled.
Early Monday, the racing world lost one of its most cherished icons when Hall of Famer Genuine Risk, one of only three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby, died in her paddock at Newstead Farm in Upperville, Va., at the age of 31.
The chestnut daughter of Exclusive Native was the oldest living Derby winner at the time of her death. Regret (1915) and Winning Colors (1988) are the only other fillies to have captured America's signature Thoroughbred race.
Former Horse of the Year Alysheba, winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby, is now the oldest living Derby winner at age 24.
“Genuine Risk was an amazing horse with tremendous heart that lived a life befitting a champion,” owners Bert and Diana Firestone said in a statement. “We are truly blessed that she was a part of our life, and we are deeply saddened by her passing.”
Genuine Risk's death comes nearly six months after Winning Colors was euthanized because of complications from colic at age 23.
Her refined features might have screamed beauty queen, but Genuine Risk was nothing short of a prizefighter once she stepped onto the track.
In 1980 — 65 years after Regret became the first filly to capture the roses at Churchill Downs — Genuine Risk overwhelmed her 12 male rivals to win the Kentucky Derby by a length in 2:02, two-fifths of a second faster than Spectacular Bid's time a year earlier.
While the Derby might have been Genuine Risk's crowning achievement, it was the last two legs of the Triple Crown that fully showcased her trademark toughness.
She is still the only filly to hit the board in all three Triple Crown races, running second in both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes en route to being named champion 3-year-old filly.
““It's a credit to her toughness,” Jolley said Monday.
“There were a lot of fillies with tremendous talent, but she combined her tremendous talent with unbelievable determination. She gave it her all every time she raced, regardless who she raced against.
A star from the start
Purchased by the Firestones for $32,000 at the 1978 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky summer yearling sale, Genuine Risk let it be known early on that her own sex offered little challenge for her.
The precocious filly went undefeated in four starts as a 2-year-old, including a narrow win in the Grade II Demoiselle Stakes, and she cruised to victories in her first two starts of her sophomore season.
“After I rode her in (the 1979 Tempted Stakes) I said to LeRoy Jolley, ‘If you don't screw it up, she can win the Derby,'” jockey Jacinto Vasquez, who rode Genuine Risk in all but three of her 15 career starts, told the Herald-Leader in 2007.
When Genuine Risk finished third in her first try against males in the 1980 Wood Memorial, her final Derby prep, a cautious Jolley was tempted to scratch the blanket of roses off his wish list.
Once Jolley took her back to the track the next week, however, she made a compelling argument to move forward with the ambitious plan.
“After she was beaten in the Wood, I was pretty down because I didn't think anyone would beat her,” Jolley said. “I think the turning point was we gave her two to three days off and decided we would gallop her that Wednesday and see how she recovered. It was a wonderful, cold spring morning and she was feeling good and she about ran off with Jacinto. So she kind of made the decision for all of us.”
On the heels of her gritty Derby triumph, Genuine Risk was made the favorite for the Preakness, but she was the subject of some controversy in the aftermath. Vasquez claimed foul against Angel Cordero Jr., rider of Preakness winner Codex, claiming Codex had drifted out around the final turn forcing his filly wide.
The result was allowed to stand.
“My filly ran great throughout the Triple Crown. She didn't discredit herself at all,” Vasquez said.
Struggles in the shed
Genuine Risk was retired after her 4-year-old season with 10 wins in 15 starts and earnings of $646,587. While expectations were high for her in the breeding shed, her second career would be filled with frustrating heartache.
The chestnut mare, who became the first Derby winner to be bred to a Derby winner when she was sent to 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1982, suffered through a multitude of miscarriages while producing just two live foals during her broodmare career. Neither made it to the racetrack.
Genuine Risk's problems in the shed helped gain her a following that transcended her sport. When she did produce her first live foal—the aptly named Genuine Reward — in 1993, the outpouring of affection she received rivaled that of her historic Derby victory.
“It was unbelievable. Millions of people who had fertility issues identified with this mare,” Dan Rosenberg, former president of Three Chimneys Farm, told the Herald-Leader in 2007. The farm managed Genuine Risk at the time she had her first foal.
“There was always fan interest in her, but when she had that first foal it was off the scale.
“You wouldn't believe how many cards and gifts we received. It wasn't a horse story any more, it was a people story.”
Genuine Risk was pensioned after coming up barren for a third straight year in 2000, and she had resided at the Firestones' Newstead Farm since 1998.