Lil E. Tee, who upset heavily favored Arazi to win the 1992 Kentucky Derby, has died. He was 20.
The horse was euthanized at Old Frankfort Stud in Lexington on March 18. Farm owner Jim Plemmons said the horse fell ill last month following an operation to repair an obstructed bowel and struggled to recover.
"He was losing his equilibrium, and we didn't want him to suffer," Plemmons said. "Up to that point, he had been fabulous. He looked like he was 10 years old."
The chestnut colt's career nearly ended before it began after Lil E. Tee underwent lifesaving stomach surgery as a yearling, dimming his racing prospects.
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W. Cal Partee took a chance, purchasing the colt after he won his maiden race and sending him to trainer Lynn Whiting at Churchill Downs. Lil E. Tee thrived under Whiting, winning the Jim Beam Stakes and finishing second in the Arkansas Derby to earn a spot in the run for the roses.
"He just had that look about him," Whiting said. "People thought, because of his name, that he was diminutive in stature. But he was a lot of horse. ... We thought he could be anything."
The breeder, Lawrence I. Littman, was responsible for the strange name, the New York Times reported. All of his horses got the first name "Lil" from his initials, then a second name based on whim. Lil E. Tee was named for the space creature in the movie E.T.
Lil E. Tee, like the rest of the Derby field, spent the week leading up to the race as a mere afterthought behind European star Arazi. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner the previous October entered the Derby as the prohibitive favorite while Lil E. Tee went off at modest 17-1 odds.
Jockey Pat Day tucked Lil E. Tee behind Arazi around the far turn, though Day figured his best bet was to simply hit the board.
"When (Arazi) went by me, I thought 'Well we're running for second money,' " Day said.
Lil E. Tee had other ideas. He caught the fading Arazi early in the stretch then turned his attention to leaders Casual Lies and Dance Floor.
"I felt I had a pretty good response and went to looking down the racetrack and saw that we were catching up," Day said.
Giving Lil E. Tee — who had a tendency to loaf once he got the lead — stern urging through the stretch, Day roared past the front-runners to win by a length for the only Derby victory of his Hall of Fame career.
"Realistically speaking, I've went into the (Derby) with more confidence on other mounts, like Easy Goer in '89," Day said. "I'd been fortunate enough to run the race on a favorite. ... But I believed if we'd get some breaks in the race or at least didn't have any bad luck, we'd be in the thick of it."
Respect proved to be hard to come by, though. Most of the aftermath was spent wondering what went wrong with Arazi, who faded to eighth.
"He never got credit for beating Arazi. It was the race that Arazi lost," Plemmons said.
Lil E. Tee's bid for a Triple Crown ended with a fifth-place finish in the Preakness.
Day last saw Lil E. Tee about a year ago, and the horse still had the playful nature that endeared him to Day when they first met 18 years ago.
"He was a big showman," Day said. "He was proud of himself. He carried himself well, and he loved to be around the cameras. He loved the activity."