March 24, 2009

Lil E. Tee and the magical 1992 Kentucky Derby

Lil E. Tee is one of the major reasons that I am so passionate about thoroughbred racing, particularly The Kentucky Derby. 1992 was one of the most exciting springs in Arkansas horse racing history, with top Derby candidates Lil E. Tee and Pine Bluff establishing an epic rivalry. It started in the Southwest Stakes, when long-shot Big Sur surprised the racing world when he bested both Pine Bluff (who finished second) and Lil E. Tee (show spot). The connections of Lil E. Tee (owner W. Cal Partee and trainer Lynn Whiting) then shipped their Pennsylvania bred to Turfway Park where he re-established his winning ways in the Jim Beam Stakes, setting up the greatest Arkansas Derby ever run. After matching strides from the clubhouse turn to the finish line, Pine Bluff hit the wire half of a head sooner than Lil E. Tee. Although Pine Bluff won the battle that day, the war ultimately went to Lil E. Tee three weeks later in Louisville.

Fast forward to Kentucky Derby week in 1992 and the media frenzy over the previous Juvenile Breeders’ Cup Champion ARAZI (the name still harkens memories of the Darth Vader-esque villain). Arazi had made a never-before-seen SWOOOSH move around the turn at Churchill Downs the previous November en route to his Juvenile triumph. If there was any possible chance of an American horse denying the French based Arazi the roses, that hope rested on the stern withers of Santa Anita Derby winner and possibly the greatest breeding specimen in U.S. thoroughbred history, A.P. Indy. The $2.9 million sale topping yearling purchase was sired by Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew out of Secretariat’s greatest daughter, Weekend Surprise. A.P. Indy would go on to claim the Eclipse Award for Champion male horse after his smashing Belmont Stakes score and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Fast forward to Derby dawn, circa 1992… there is commotion on the backstretch where an exasperated Neil Drysdale is addressing the media. The shocking news of A.P. Indy’s scratch from the race due to a lame hoof sends panic through the Louisville track’s stable area and fuels several dozen hits on a recent web invention by Al Gore known as the “internet.” (Fyi… this event led to the creation of ESPN’s “Breakfast at Churchill” coverage that’s now commonplace every year come Derby morning – the beginning of my daily ritual).

Fast forward to ABC’s Wide World of Sports reporter and horse owner Jim McKay’s pre-Derby coverage debating the odds of Shelley Riley’s chance to claim the roses as a female trainer with hard-knocking Casual Lies. Then the cameras pan right to a parachute pant entourage led by wrapper M.C. Hammer (via Oaktown Stable), who owns the talented colt, Dance Floor. D. Wayne Lukas customarily gets his fair share of camera action bringing over his two Derby entries, whilst the soft-spoken Lynn Whiting leads the bridle of the “second best” horse in Arkansas, Lil E. Tee, towards the paddock where he would soon give Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day a leg up. Like his trainer and owner, Pat Day had never won the big one, even though his recent Derby mounts included standouts Summer Squall, Easy Goer and Forty Niner. All of that would change on this fateful day with the unlikeliest of candidates.

The grueling stretch drive in the Arkansas Derby against Pine Bluff must have given Lil E. Tee just the conditioning necessary to produce the winning move Pat Day needed when tracking jockey Pat Valenzuela on Arazi as he began to make his move. “And Arazi is flying!” proclaimed track announcer Dave Johnson as both colts loomed wide on the final turn for home. But as quickly as you can say, “Wooooo Pig Soooiiieee” the hype began to fade for Arazi… he was a beaten horse. It was now clear that not only would Lil E. Tee pull away from Arazi, but that this hulking bay colt in polka dot orange silks (which seemed to blend magnificently with his iridescent bay coat) was en route to passing Casual Lies to capture “the greatest two minutes in sports!” I was so ecstatic and proud at that very moment that our humbly bred, Arkansas owned horse accomplished the unthinkable.

The rivalry with Pine Bluff continued on the national stage in the Preakness Stakes, with a flip-flop finish for the two… Pine Bluff ultimately got his garland of flowers, but had to settle for the Black Eyed Susans instead of roses, while Lil E. Tee finished 5th at Pimlico, a very tired horse at that point. When Magnolia, Arkansas land man and banker W. Cal Partee won The Derby with Lil E. Tee as his fourth starter, he was a youthful 82 years young (coincidentally the age my father Herb turns today - March 24th). What made the victory so special for Mr. Partee was the fact Lil E. Tee’s sire, At The Threshold, was also campaigned by the Partee family, finishing third in the 1984 Derby won by Swale.

What some people may not know is that Lil E. Tee’s racing career was almost an afterthought when as a yearling he underwent critical stomach surgery, dimming his racing prospects. But after fully recovering and then showing promise in his first two career starts, Mr. Partee purchased the horse privately in Florida. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Here lies Lil E. Tee… winner of seven races from 13 starts, $1.4 million in purse money and winner of the 1992 Kentucky Derby, R.I.P.

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