Louisville, KY - May 10, 1913: 8 horses and their jockeys parade before a record crowd of 30,000 people at Churchill Downs. Most of those patrons believe that Ten Point will win or perhaps that the Blue Grass Stakes winner Foundation would get to the finish first. No one was looking at the 91-1 shot Donerail, the horse who had yet to even win a race that season. But in just a matter of minutes, he would have all eyes on him.
In 1910, a mare named Algie M (Hanover) foaled a beautiful bay colt sired by McGee at Glen-Helen Farm near Lexington, Kentucky. The colt’s breeder Thomas P. Hayes had decided that he would name him Donerail after a small settlement on the Fayette-Scott County line that served as the flag station on the Queen and Crescent Railway.
Hayes also decided that rather than selling his colt, he would keep and train Donerail himself. Hayes’ colt grew up into a big-boned, sturdy horse who measured about 16 hands high.
Donerail made his first career starts as a two-year old in 1912 and did well, winning four of his eighteen races. Some of his best performances that year were placings in the Golden Rod Selling Stakes and Rosedale Stakes. Donerail’s jockey Roscoe Goose was very impressed with his horse and often bragged about his potential to his friends, but the colt was pretty much under the radar to everyone else.
Donerail failed to win any of his first three races as a three-year old in 1913, though he did finish second in the Blue Grass Stakes. Being so, Thomas P. Hayes was not very interested in entering his horse into the Kentucky Derby - he felt that Donerail was simply outclassed.
1913 was just the 39th year that the Kentucky Derby was to be run and though Churchill Downs underwent renovations and increased the purse to a then-record of $6,600, it wasn’t yet as historical and important as it is today. Hayes didn’t see the point of taking his horse to Louisville if he wasn’t going to win the race.
Roscoe Goose was devastated - he felt that Donerail had a legitimate chance of winning the Kentucky Derby despite his performances early in the year. The Louisville-native urged Hayes to run Donerail in the race, but Hayes just encouraged Goose to look for a different mount, which Goose did reluctantly attempt to do. However, Goose had no luck and returned to Hayes once again begging him to run Donerail.
It took some additional imploring from Hayes’ good friend William J. Treacy to finally get him to run Donerail. Treacy offered to pay the colt’s entry fee and once Hayes had agreed, Treacy found a local bookmaker and placed a $100 bet on Donerail to win for odds of 100-1. He had absolute faith in the overlooked bay colt. It was final - Donerail would be “running for the roses”.
Donerail had to be stabled at Douglas Park due to a lack of stall space at Churchill Downs. The tracks were about three miles apart and Donerail was going to have to walk the entire way on dirt and cobblestone streets on race day. For the public and Donerail’s connections, this just seemed like another reason why he wouldn’t be able to win the race.
30,000 people packed into newly renovated Churchill Downs to enjoy the glorious afternoon of racing. By post time, Donerail was at odds of 91-1. Virtually no one, not even Hayes, thought the horse had a chance at winning. When Hayes gave Goose the leg up, he simply instructed him to try to grab a piece of the purse.
Eight horses lined up at the for the start and were away in just one minute - a perfect start. The favorite Ten Point got to the lead first and was soon three lengths in front due to his jockey having difficulty restraining him. Foundation, the horse who had beaten Donerail in the Blue Grass Stakes, was second with Yankee Notions third. Donerail and Roscoe Goose were waiting patiently, letting the frontrunners run themselves tired.
Ten Point was getting a bit tired by the time the horses neared the stretch, as was Foundation; Yankee Notions passed by the Blue Grass winner and set his sights on Ten Point. It looked like the race belonged to one of those two horses as the three-year olds barreled down the stretch, so everyone was taken by surprise when the extreme longshot Donerail came up to pass them all. By the time they hit the wire, Donerail was a half-length in front; he had just won the Kentucky Derby at odds of 91-1. The crowd went wild!
Not only was Donerail the longest shot to win in Derby history, but his time of 2:04 ⅘ for 1 ¼ miles was also the fastest running time at that point. Those who supported this horse were rewarded handsomely; Donerail earned $5,745 for his connections, those who made a $2 win bet were paid $184.90, and Hayes’ good friend William Treacey made a whopping $10,000 on his $100 bet on Donerail. The win also marked just the second time in history that a single person bred, owned, and trained the Kentucky Derby winner.
When Governor James B. McCreary handed Roscoe Goose a bouquet of flowers and congratulated him on his accomplishment, Goose responded, “I regard it as the greatest afternoon in my whole life for the reason that I was born and reared in Louisville and I have won Louisville’s greatest race. I will never forget this day as long as I live.”
“I will say for my mount that he did all I asked of him throughout the race,” Goose continued. “He held his position well in the early part and finished stanch and game when I called on him in the stretch. I rode him to the best of my ability, I was on a good horse today.”
Donerail went on to win the Canadian Sportsman’s Handicap and hit the board in a few other stakes races that season. In 1914 he won the Hamilton Cup, Belle Island Handicap, and Walkerville Handicap and finished second or third in six other stakes races that year. Unfortunately, Donerail broke down at the end of his four year old season and could not race again until 1916, though he never regained the form he once had.
Donerail was retired to his birthplace Glen-Helen Farm where he briefly stood stud for a fee of $50, though he did not sire any registered Thoroughbred foals here. In 1917, Hayes donated Donerail to the Remount Service to be used as a sire for cavalry horses. However, Donerail never underwent the required inspections and was put back into training in the spring of 1918. He raced all throughout his eight year old season and exchanged hands a few times, but was never very successful.
Donerail was soon purchased by famed horseman John E. Madden; Madden had Donerail gelded and intended to run him on the New York circuit, but Donerail never started again. His racing career was officially over. In all, Donerail had raced 62 times and earned a record of 10-11-10. There is not much information on what became of Donerail after he retired from racing, but there is at least one thing that is certain - Donerail will forever be an important piece of Kentucky Derby history. His long odds have never been matched by another Kentucky Derby winner. 2019’s official winner Country House was at odds of 65-1 when he left the starting gates, Giacamo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009) were both at odds of 50-1 when they won.
It’s unlikely that another horse will ever come close to winning the Kentucky Derby with odds like Donerail’s.
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