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Connecticut Connections to the Kentucky Derby

By Phil Devlin.

Mike Manganello of Hartford is the only Connecticut-born jockey
ever to win the “Run for the Roses”

Dust Commander and jockey Mike Manganello from Hartford at 1970 Derby

This Saturday is the 147th “Run for the Roses,” America’s most popular horse race, the Kentucky Derby. 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 race in the United States and is held yearly on the first Saturday in May.

Connecticut has a couple of strong connections to the Derby. In 1985, Manchester native Cam Gambolati trained wire-to-wire winner Spend A Buck to victory at odds of 4-1. In addition, the only Connecticut-born jockey to win the Derby was Hartford native Mike Manganello. Born in Hartford in 1941, Mike was aboard Dust Commander in an exciting come-from-behind victory in the 95th renewal of the Kentucky Derby in 1970 at odds of 15-1.

The 1970 Derby was a landmark event for a couple of reasons. First, it marked the debut of the first female jockey ever to ride in the Run for the Roses. Diane Crump finished 15th on Fathom. Secondly, it marked the birth of a style of writing that came to be known as “Gonzo” journalism with the publication of Hunter S. Thompson’s article about the 1970 Derby entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”

Thompson, a Louisville native, was very familiar with the Derby. Casting aside traditional objectivity, Thompson wrote a first-person subjective account about the human celebration and debauchery that accompanied the event, including a running account of drunken, lewd behavior that he observed both in the infield and in the grandstand. Thompson’s focus was not on the race; instead, his focus was on the humans attending it.

While Thompson was wandering around the crowd at the Derby observing human behavior, Mike Manganello was guiding Dust Commander to victory around the Churchill Downs oval. Well behind early, Mike began to pick up horses on the backstretch. Turning for home, Dust Commander ducked to the rail and commenced a powerful stretch drive that took him to an easy win. It was the highlight of Manganello’s racing career. Dust Commander went on to have a total of 42 starts, winning 8, placing 5 times, and showing 4 times. In addition to the Derby, Dust Commander also won the prestigious Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland. His career earnings surpassed $215,000. As a stud, Dust Commander sired 1975 Preakness winner Master Derby.

Described often as one of racing’s nice guys, Mike Manganello began his career as a stable hand with trainer Odie Clelland. He began riding in 1959, earning his first win on March 3, 1960, at the Fairgrounds in New Orleans. Mike retired from riding briefly in 1979 and started training horses. He resumed his riding career in 1984 for about another four years before going to work as a steward — first in Texas and then at River Downs in Ohio.

Mike won over 2,500 races in his career, including a season-record 75 wins at Florida Downs in 1969. Mike still holds the record for most wins at the Turfway Park Fall Championship Stakes in Florence, KY, with five. He once rode five straight winners at Thistledown in 1964.

This year’s Derby has a full field of 20 horses, all trying to win the roses — the most coveted goal for any jockey. Fifty-one years ago this week, Hartford native Mike Manganello posed in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs with his mount, Dust Commander, fulfilling a lifelong dream and becoming the only Connecticut-born jockey ever to win the Kentucky Derby.

Public domain photo.

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