Kentucky Derby

First foreign-born Derby winner was 100 years ago; few have followed

Omar Khayyam, foaled in England, won the 43rd Kentucky Derby on May 12, 1917. He was the first of four foreign-born horses to win the Derby. The others were Tomy Lee (1959), Northern Dancer (1964) and Sunny’s Halo (1983).
Omar Khayyam, foaled in England, won the 43rd Kentucky Derby on May 12, 1917. He was the first of four foreign-born horses to win the Derby. The others were Tomy Lee (1959), Northern Dancer (1964) and Sunny’s Halo (1983). Kentucky Derby Museum

Of the 142 Kentucky Derbys, more than 100 have been won by horses born in the state. But 100 years ago, Omar Khayyam, bred and foaled in England, became the first foreign-born horse to win the Run for the Roses.

Three others followed: the English-bred Tomy Lee (1959), then two from Canada: Northern Dancer (1964) and Sunny’s Halo (1983).

For most of its history, “the Kentucky Derby has not been a particularly strong international race, at least in terms of horses based in other countries coming specifically for the race,” said Ed Bowen, author of many books about Thoroughbred racing.

“Of the four non-United States-breds which have won it, Omar Khayyam and Tomy Lee were purchased by American stables as young horses abroad and brought to the United States to race, while Northern Dancer and Sunny’s Halo were bred in Ontario and raced by their breeders.

“By and large,” Bowen wrote in an email, “the most dominant international aspect came from the fact that stallions and mares imported from other countries, primarily England, became sires or dams of Derby runners.”

James Nicholson agrees. His 2012 book, “The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event,” delves into how the Thoroughbred industry has become an increasingly global enterprise.

“It would be reasonable to assume that foreign-bred winners of the Derby would lead to some marginal increase in foreign interest in the race,” Nicholson wrote in an email.

But Nicholson added: “I’d say the greater impact has come from foreign owners of Derby runners and Derby winners. There is certainly more interest today than there was 30 or 40 years ago, but I think it’d be quite a stretch to attribute that to Sunny’s Halo or any other foreign-breds.”

Most of the foreign-bred horses that have entered the Derby were born in Great Britain and Ireland. In 1986, Bold Arrangement was brought over from England, finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland (his first American race), and then placed second to Ferdinand in the Kentucky Derby.

Omar Khayyam’s owners, like many of their European peers, brought their horse to America as a yearling because World War I had interrupted racing overseas. Omar Khayyam won the Derby 36 days after the United States declared war.

In the 145 years of the Run for the Roses, three of the biggest surprise winners have come in the past 17 years.

Canadian-born colt Northern Dancer won in an even 2 minutes, a track record that wasn’t broken until Secretariat won in 1973.

Beyond the Derby, Northern Dancer became one of the most influential international sires in Thoroughbred history. His offspring earned more money and won more major stakes races than any other sire in the 20th century, and his progeny transformed Keeneland’s yearling sale into an international marketplace, drawing buyers from all over the world.

The Derby has seen one French-bred entry. Donnacona came in fifth in 1920. And there has been a Mexican-bred entry: Habano came in 20th in the 1981 Derby. Canonero II, the 1971 winner, was born at Claiborne Farm in Bourbon County, but he was moved to Venezuela, raced in South America, and came back to the United States to run in the Derby. He is often referred to as the only “foreign-based” winner of the Derby.

This year’s Derby contenders include State of Honor, foaled in Ontario, and Thunder Snow, born in Ireland.

Earning a spot in the race is based on participation in certain races that go toward Derby qualification. The 20 horses with the most points qualify to be in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

So for a European horse to aim for the Derby, it has to have run in North America or select races in Japan and the Middle East to earn its way into the field.

Potato farming, auto racing, tanks and train wrecks are all part of the history of the infield at Churchill Downs.

“In the last few years, the United Arab Emirates Derby has been among the races which generate purses/points that count toward entrance in the Kentucky Derby,” Bowen said. “Several have come over, but so far without success.”

In addition, Japan has sent a few runners, and that is likely to be a lasting international element, Bowen said, although in some cases the horses will probably be American-breds that have been bought as yearlings by Japanese horsemen.

“Churchill Downs has designated specific Japanese races in which a horse can earn an automatic berth in the Kentucky Derby, and it will be interesting to see what comes of that,” Bowen said.

It will remain the Kentucky Derby, but it seems certain there will always be some international flavor to the “most exciting two minutes in sports.”

“The Kentucky Derby is a naturally compelling and exciting event, but the presence of international contenders always adds to the anticipation and intrigue surrounding America’s race,” then-Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton told the Herald-Leader in 2008. “A consistent international presence in the Derby will strengthen the worldwide interest in our race.”

Four consecutive post-time favorites have won the Run for Roses. A fifth would break a long dry spell.