When you've run a race enough times like the Kentucky Derby, one would think that some trends would start to emerge that would help handicappers. And over time they have; this piece will go over them in some detail, and outline horses that deviate from the norm. But part and parcel with this year's Derby is a huge question surrounding 3 year old thoroughbred racing: does the past even matter anymore?
To say that modern horses are trained differently than they were 30 years ago is an understatement. Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat all had substantial 2 year old campaigns, ran frequently before the Derby, ran very close to the date of the Derby, and ran many times after the Derby. Over the last decade or so, we've seen trainers try to buck these trends (outlined below) with a ton of failures. Point Given, Indian Charlie, Bellamy Road and Lion Heart were all strong faves or second choices that bucked a big trend and didn't win. And in those years past there were fine options to come up with if you saw the flaws in these contenders and looked for a horse that was more typical of the Derby profile---see, for example, Monarchos, Real Quiet and War Emblem.
2006 started the erosion of this somewhat with Barbaro's victory off a 5-week layoff, which, as we'll see, was a huge deviation from the norm. 2007 is a continuation of this to the nth degree--there's nary a horse out there that doesn't have some major chink in their armor, and the ones that don't either look too slow or are laughably bad. To say this is the hardest Derby to decipher in a while is putting it nicely.
And yet, while some people will have you believe that the history and guidelines are to be thrown out, and that you should just handicap the Derby like a regular race...I can't agree. The Derby just isn't another race, even if you toss out the historical significance. It's unique for a millieu of reasons. It's only 3 year olds. They're running a new distance (1 1/4 miles). They're in a tremendous field. The pace is (usually) fierce. And there's a crowd of over 150,000 making a lot of noise. To say you should handicap this like the 3rd at Aqueduct or the Cash Call Stakes is folly.
So what are the characteristics of a Derby winner? Let's examine a few, in the Traits of a Derby Winner, which are divided even further by their relative difficulty to overcome:
Level One: Would be Contrary to Recorded History and Common Sense
The Apollo Factor. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without the benefit of a start as a two-year old since Apollo in 1882. Let's repeat that one again. Since. Eighteeen. Eighty. Two. This marks, therefore, the 125th anniversary of Apollo being That Hoss and winning the Run for the Roses based purely on a 3-year old campaign. This is curse has struck down over 40 horses, including Hall of Famer Forego (who, in fairness, wasn't beating Secretariat without invention from BALCO), and race favorites Air Forbes Won and Pulpit. Is this a big deal this year? Well, yes, actually---Curlin is attempting to go into this race without a start as a 2 year old, and may be the Derby favorite off his scintillating Arkansas Derby performance. In fact, not only is he trying to buck this trait, he's trying to buck...
The Regret Rule. Since Regret's victory in 1915, no horse has won the Derby with 3 or fewer starts. Curlin's trying to do that as well, as he has made a whopping three starts this year in his career. It goes without saying that if he wins this year's Derby, he will have taken the rules, thrown them into the shredder, and given them the treatment Vito, Jr. did Sunday night to the gym showers.
Ok, so who's still sold on Curlin as the favorite? Didn't think so. Let's move on to other factors less insane to overcome.
Level Two: History is Not on Your Side
The Exterminator Factor. Taking the Regret Rule a step further, no horse since Exterminator in 1918 has won this race with 4 starts either. This one has taken down a lot more horses than #2, as we're recently inclined to seeing horses with only 4 starts make the dance. This group is 0-for-37, with Strodes Creek's 2nd place finish in 1993 being the most successful, and has taken down the aforementioned Air Forbes Won, along with Congaree, Indian Charlie, and Stephen Got Even. This year, we're looking at....you, Tiago. In addition to being brother to Giacomo, the worst Derby winner in recent memory, you've only got 4 races. Away with ye!
The Juvenile Curse. Since the inception of the Breeders Cup in 1984, we've had 22 horses win the Breeders Cup Juvenile, the featured race for 2 year old colts. A whopping ZERO of those winners have won the Derby. In fact, only Timber Country has won a Triple Crown race. Curse? Maybe. Many of those horses were simply prodiguous and the rest of their class caught up to them. Others were sprinters who eked out the 1 1/6 miles of the Juvenile. Others simply got hurt. This year, we're faced with Street Sense, who figures on a lot of fronts, and is up against it on some others. Difficult to figure out.
Go the Distance. The Kentucky Derby will be the first time that any of these prized three year olds will have run 1 1/4 miles. While experience at that distance is obviously not needed (indeed, distance breeding is always a key question), experience at 1 1/8 miles, the length of all preps of note, is quite important. Failure to have a prep at 1 1/8 miles (not a win, just a prep) is fairly damning. So what are Circular Quay, Slew's Tizzy and Hard Spun to do, without the benefit of a full distance prep? Well, most probably, lose.
Sunny's Halo's Ghost. Since 1955, a whopping one horse has won the Derby with 2 or fewer preps during the year: Sunny's Halo in 1983. (It's worth noting he raced 13 times in his 2 year old season.) Outside of that aberration, horses that haven't had 3+ preps have failed miserably at Churchilll Downs, though frequently running for 2nd. This one is pretty potent historically, as it includes future TC race winners Point Given, Victory Gallop, and Best Pal. This year? Well dammit, we've got a whole slew of them. We have Dominican, who has only run twice this year, and both time on Polytrack (a faux-dirt surface). We have the aforementioned Street Sense. And we have Great Hunter, who had a solid 2yo campaign, a great comeback race, and a wholly blah 2nd race this year. Are these guys gonna be seasoned enough in the stretch on Saturday?
Level Three: Difficult, Not Impossible
The Needles/Barbaro Factor: Going into the 2006 Derby, it was heresy to consider running a horse in the Derby who hadn't run in the last 28 days. Needles was the last horse to accomplish that feat in the mid-1950s, despite several trying to topple it. And then...Barbaro did it off a 5-week layoff last year. What changed? Well, the Florida Derby for starters. Until a few years ago, the Florida Derby was a March prep, and was generally a horse's penultimate race before the Derby. Instead, the genius patrol at Magna decided to make it 5 weeks before the Big Race, putting it in something of a nether-world: too close to run in a traditional prep, while farther out than usual for your final prep. While this failed for horses like High Fly and Noble Causeway in 2005, Barbaro toppled this boundary with authority last year.
So what to make of horses off a 5-week layoff? Well, Scat Daddy & Chelokee are trying to go from the same Florida Derby, so I'm willing to consider them ok. But then you have Hard Spun, who passed on the last round of Derby preps for no reason, meaning he's got a 6-week layoff under his belt. Then there's Circular Quay, who not only has only run twice this year, but hasn't run in eight weeks! Pletcher does traditionally love to give his horses time to rest, but geez.
The Sharp Prep Race. This is less of a rule, and more of a guideline: any horse that didn't run well in his prep and is a short price is a horrrrrible bet. If a horse ran poorly last out, demand a price. See Thunder Gulch in 1995 (27-1) and Giacomo in 2005 (50-1). So I ask you: how would you treat Great Hunter when he's 12-1 off a hideous performance in the Blue Grass?
Just Win, Dammit. It's next to impossible to find a Derby winner who's light on the win front; indeed, the average for the last two decades is over 3 career wins coming into the big race, with Giacomo's lone win being the main exception. (Can we just forget Giacomo existed? Great, thanks.) Who does this doink out this year? Well, besides Giacomo's baby brother Tiago, there's also Zanjero, Chelokee, Sedgefield (who, p.s., has never run on the dirt!), Sam P., Slew's Tizzy, I'mawildandcrazyguy, and Liquidity.
The Need for Speed. The good folks at the Daily Racing Form issue what's called a Beyer Speed Figure for every race, which, in essence, distills a horse's race time into a number comparable across tracks and distances. The higher the better. And the average Derby winner has posted a 106 Beyer before the big race. And here is where the biggest problem lies in this year's Derby: we have ONE horse that's cracked this number: Street Sense, in last year's Juvenile, which may have been aided by a rail bias. Whoa boy.
Coming in the next couple of days we'll break it down for all 20 horses running in the race and see where they fit in. But as you can tell, this ain't easy. More likely than not, something's going to give this year.