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Connecticut Connections to the Kentucky Derby

By Philip R. Devlin

(May 1, 2023) — Named after direct descendants of William Clark — the Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition — Churchill Downs has hosted the Kentucky Derby annually since 1875. It is the most popular horse race in the United States and is held yearly on the first Saturday in May.    Though this year’s 149th renewal has no Connecticut horses, trainers, owners or jockeys, the “Run For The Roses” has a long history of many connections to the Nutmeg State.  Manchester native Cam Gambolati trained Spend A Buck to the winner’s circle in 1985. Ridden by Hall of Famer Angel Cordero, Jr., Spend A Buck went wire-to-wire, setting one of the fastest internal mile split times in Derby history — 1:34.2. Time Magazine referred to the 1985 Kentucky Derby winner, Spend A Buck, as the “bay bullet” with good reason. 

Hartford native Mike Manganello was the jockey on Dust Commander (photo above), a horse who went off at odds of 16-1 in the 1970 Derby. Dust Commander came from well off the pace to win the roses. Manganello continued on as a jockey, racing mainly on secondary racing circuits until 1988 — a career spanning nearly 30 years and 2,500 victories. 

The Connecticut native who has clearly had an enormous influence on the Kentucky Derby, however, was Abraham I. (“Butch”) Savin. Born and raised in New London, Butch Savin worked for the military during World War I by constructing defensive gun emplacements on Fisher’s Island. Apparently, the work appealed to him, as he continued to work on construction during the years following the war; in fact, he founded his own construction company — the Abraham I. Savin Company (AISCO) — in 1928.  

Savin made a fortune with his construction business, playing a key role in the construction of both the New Jersey Turnpike and Idlewild (now JFK) Airport in New York City. A lover of horses since he was a boy, Butch Savin began to invest heavily in thoroughbred racing as an owner and breeder in the early 1960s. One of his key purchases was a young colt foaled in 1970. That colt’s name was Mr. Prospector. He cost $220,000.   Unfortunately for him and the Savins, Mr. Prospector was foaled in the same year as the legendary Secretariat (1970). Secretariat, of course, was one of the greatest race horses of all time. He won the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes — in 1973, fifty years ago. So dominant a performer was Secretariat that he still holds the stakes record times for all three Triple Crown races — an amazing statistic!    Savin’s Mr. Prospector could not stay with Secretariat in the longer races of the Triple Crown, but he was one of the fastest sprinters of his time. Mr. Prospector captured many 6 to 7 furlong races through 1974, setting several stakes and track records for sprints. He was retired to stud in 1974.   It was in the AISCO Farm’s breeding shed that Mr. Prospector had an enormous influence on the Kentucky Derby as well as the other Triple Crown races. After being re-syndicated to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, Mr. Prospector continued to beget a line of champions. The 1990 Preakness winner, Summer Squall, owned in part by Windsor Locks native Ray Roncari, was sired by Mr. Prospector. Arguably, he is the most influential sire in thoroughbred racing in the past 50 years.  Every horse entered in the 2018 Kentucky Derby was descended from Mr. Prospector! Amazing.                                                                                  Here are some of his recent Derby winners: Quiet American (1989) and Real Quiet (1998); Unbridled, (1990);Grindstone (1996); Mine That Bird (2009); War Emblem (2002); and Smarty Jones (2004).  

One of the top contenders in this year’s Derby is a horse named Forte. Forte’s great-grandsire is none other than Mr. Prospector, so if Forte wins this year’s Run for the Roses, Connecticut’s Butch Savin’s Mr. Prospector can be credited with an assist! 

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