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Kentucky Derby: Mystik Dan wins in three-horse photo finish, outruns favorite Fierceness in stunning upset

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY - MAY 04: Mystik Dan #3, ridden by jockey Brian J. Hernandez Jr. crosses the finish line to win the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 04, 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Mystik Dan (farthest inside) ridden by jockey Brian J. Hernandez Jr., crosses the finish line first to win the 150th Kentucky Derby on Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Justin Casterline via Getty Images

Fierceness strode into the Kentucky Derby as the overwhelming favorite, but Mystik Dan took the roses in a three-horse photo finish, winning the 150th Kentucky Derby in a stunning upset. Mystic Dan outran Sierra Leone and Forever Young in one of the closest finishes in Derby history, ending in a finish so close that the winner wasn't immediately obvious. It's only the 10th time the Derby winner won by a nose, and the first time the finish has been so close in 28 races. 

Trainer Kenny McPeek won both the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks on the weekend, the first trainer to do so since 1952. Mystik Dan, ridden by jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., went off at 18-1 odds at the Derby, and the margin was so close that Churchill Downs waited nearly 10 minutes to release the photo confirming the victory. 

Fierceness started well, taking the lead at the quarter pole. But the favorite couldn't maintain the pace, fading to 15th. Meanwhile, Mystik Dan seized the lead in the back stretch. Mystik Dan's huge lead quickly shrank as Sierra Leone and Forever Young charged from the outside, and almost caught Mystik Dan at the wire. 

Throughout the week heading up to the Derby, Fierceness maintained a massive advantage as favorite. Fierceness, starting from the 17th gate, began the week as a 3-1 Morning Line favorite, and after some movement during the week, finished the same way at post time. The Todd Pletcher-trained horse was challenging history; no favorite had won the race since 2018. The second-best odds as of Saturday afternoon belonged to Sierra Leone at 9/2 from the second post position. 

The purse for the 2024 Derby stood at $5 million, which was up from $3 million as recently as 2019. That purse will be split among the top five finishers, with the winner receiving $3.1 million and the second-place finisher winning $1 million. 

Fierceness spent the week as the focus of both intense betting interest and intense pressure. The horse won at the Florida Derby in March and at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November. Repole, Fierceness' owner, was 0-7 in the Derby coming into Saturday, with two more pre-race scratches. That didn't stop Repole from comparing his latest entrant to some all-time greats prior to the race. 

"He's a very chill horse," Repole told ESPN on Saturday. "He sits in the barn very unassuming and then he goes on that track, he's Kobe Bryant in Game 7 or it's Tom Brady in the Super Bowl."

This year marked the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby, the nation's longest-lasting continuously run sporting event. Churchill Downs has spent $200 million to transform the paddock beside the track to watch the horses in the minutes before the race, with the intention of escalating the entire experience to elite levels and ratcheting a Derby Day trip further up American sports fans' bucket lists. 

The 150th Derby, with the improved Churchill Downs experience, is a deliberate effort to move both the track and the sport forward. Twelve horse deaths at the track last year, including two on Derby Day, prompted Churchill Downs to increase safety protocols, such as improving the surface and bringing in additional veterinary safety officials. Investigations of the deaths found no connection between them. 

Trainer Bob Baffert, one of the most recognizable faces in recent Derby history, remains suspended from the track after his 2021 Derby-winning horse, Medina Spirit, tested positive for a banned steroid. Last summer, Churchill Downs extended his suspension for another year after the track expressed “continued concerns regarding the threat to the safety and integrity of racing he poses to CDI-owned racetracks.”

The 156,000 who attended the 2024 Derby may have been paying at least $150 for tickets and $22 for mint juleps once inside, but they also had the opportunity to share the track with celebrities including Travis Kelce, Jimmy Fallon, Martha Stewart and Aaron Rodgers. They saw a spectacle unparalleled in American sports, two minutes that will change the lives of horse, rider, trainer and owner. 

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