Upset with Derby Photo Finish

An overview of the 2024 Kentucky Derby, and how the longshot Mystik Dan took the win in a three way photo finish.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Amber Gaw

In the 2024 Kentucky Derby, all eyes were on the favorite, Fierceness, who had 3-1 odds to win. But in a surprising turn of events, Fierceness left many wallets lighter. After a photo finish, longshot Mystik Dan won the Run for the Roses with 18-1 odds, turning modest $100 bets into staggering $1,900 returns. This year’s Derby was a testament to the unpredictable nature of horse racing and sports betting, as well as the potential rewards of backing the underdog.

This year marked the 150th anniversary of the Kentucky Derby, the longest continuously held major sporting event in the US. To celebrate, the stands at Churchill Downs were packed with over 155,000 people. Celebrities like Jack Harlow and Jimmy Fallon were among the crowds showcasing floral dresses, large hats, and pastel suits at the “Southern Met Gala.” The real show, however, took place on the track. Out of the 20-horse lineup, two of the horses were international. Both T O Password and Forever Young were Japanese-bred horses seeking Japan's first Kentucky Derby win. Forever Young (7-1) was one of the three favorites to win, along with Fierceness (3-1) and Sierra Leone (9-2). Fierceness had won the Florida Derby, a major prep race, by over 13 lengths. Additionally, he had three wins out of his five career starts. Sierra Leone, the most expensive horse on the track at $2.3 million, had won three out of four career starts and had never finished below second. Forever Young was undefeated in five races and had two wins since February. But the one who most people overlooked was Mystik Dan. Despite lacking impressive career wins to boast, the three-year-old colt’s maximum Speed Score—a statistic designed to calculate a horse’s speed while taking track conditions into account—was 110, tied with Fierceness and second only to Just Steel, who had a score of 112.

When the gates opened at 6:57 p.m., Track Phantom (20-1) started surprisingly strong and held the lead for the first half mile, with Fierceness following closely behind. Mystik Dan kept the inside rail, staying away from the charging front of the pack. Coming around the final turn and into the last quarter-mile stretch, Mystik Dan pushed past Track Phantom, sticking close to the rail and taking the lead by a few feet. At the same time, Sierra Leone and Forever Young came up strong from the far outside, running together. Side by side, the jockeys started showing that it was not only a race but also a physical battle. Tyler Gaffalione, aboard Sierra Leone, held his whip along the right shoulder of Forever Young during their struggle to catch up to Mystik Dan, for which he was ultimately fined $2,500. The three horses were shoulder to shoulder in the last few feet, and after two minutes and three seconds, a winner couldn't be determined at the finish line.

After a careful review of the photo finish in what Mystik Dan’s jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. called “the longest few minutes of [his] life," Mystik Dan was announced the winner of the Derby by a nose—literally. If Sierra Leone or Forever Young had been in a different part of their stride or had their heads stuck a little farther out across the finish, they easily could have defeated Mystik Dan. But with some luck and impressive speeds reaching over 35 mph, the underdog Mystik Dan outran the favorites, winning the garland of roses and a hefty prize of $3.1 million for Hernandez and Mystik Dan’s trainer, Kenny McPeek.

Although luck may have helped, Hernandez had a strategy going into the race. He had studied previous races and knew that, in order to have a shot, he had to stick to the rail. Naturally, the path closest to the rail is the shortest circle around the track, giving Mystik Dan an advantage over his competitors. Since he had the third post and started close to the rail, he knew he could hold this key position from the beginning without having to cut across the track through the stampede of other horses, which would’ve been virtually impossible. Out of the gate, Hernandez stuck to his plan. He was rewarded for this when horse Track Phantom left some room. Mystik Dan was able to push through the rail to the lead. As Hernandez said himself, “He shot off and I'm like, 'Oh man, I've got a big chance to win the Kentucky Derby.'” McPeek credits Hernandez for his race strategy, ride, and energy. “I just believe in mojo, in positive energy and we’ve had a lot of it,” McPeek said.

As well as being the first three-way finish since 1947, the 150th Kentucky Derby made history for other reasons. It was the first time a Japanese horse had placed at the Kentucky Derby. Additionally, it was the first time that the track had over $200 million in bets. This apparent increase in interest, internationally and in the U.S., is most likely due to the legalization of online sports betting. But newcomers must realize, as Mystik Dan proved, that you shouldn't always go with the favorite. You have to take a gamble to win big, or even at all. Sometimes, the underdog surprises everyone, making the Kentucky Derby “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”