As the horse racing media has been reporting over and over again for the past few years, the Kentucky Derby's traditional rules no longer apply. Until 2002, all of the traditional rules remained inviolate. You had to start as a two year old, run 3+ times as a 3yo, run in a traditional prep that was 2-4 weeks before the Derby, have five or more starts in your career, be bred to run a mile and a quarter, and of course, get lucky. Since then, the meme goes, many of these rules have fallen, as horses that would be automatic tosses in years past have won the Kentucky Derby. Thus, ignore the rules altogether and just find the fastest and most talented horse, like you would for any other race.
But has have the rules actually been thrown out the window since Monarchos romped home in 2001? Let's look at the winners of the last seven Derbies and what "rules" they have broken. Let's also bear in mind while doing this exercise that the rules exist for a reason--namely, so a horse can be prepared for the rigors of running 10 furlongs in May in front of 150,000 people against 12-19 other horses. As we'll see below, "rules" that have no bearing on a horse's ability or fitness should be ignored as silly and irrelevant.
2002: War Emblem. After upsetting the Illinois Derby at a square price, War Emblem came into the Kentucky Derby with a high Gowanus Speed Figure and went gate to wire at 20-1. The factor this horse was missing was him running in a traditional prep race, as the Illinois Derby had never produced a Derby winner. However, prior to 2001, the race wasn't a Derby prep, as it was run after the Kentucky Derby. War Emblem breaking the hammerlock held by the Wood-Blue Grass-Santa Anita-Arkansas quartet was simply a function of the timing of the race.
2003: Funny Cide. This guy was the first New York bred to win the Derby, which was small potatoes (and utterly meaningless, at any rate) next to the fact that he was the first gelding to win the Derby in 76 years. Significant? Absolutely not. First of all, the sample size was a ridiculously small 0-for-27 over that time period. Second, what difference does it make if a horse has his boys or not? Where's the cause/effect relation?
2004: Smarty Jones. Funny Cide was sired by a miler, but Smarty Jones was sired by an outright sprinter, breaking the tradition of some actual distance breeding being a necessity to take home the roses. It's tough to say that this broke a "rule"; more than anything else his victory evidenced that speed was at least as important as stamina when examining a pedigree.
2005: Giacomo. The gray Californian makes the Kentucky Derby the second win of his career, being one of very few horses to win the Derby not only off a poor prep but also one with no stakes victories. Heck, his only winning race before the Derby was his maiden race. We'd say this was a rule shatterer...except that Giacomo was 50-1 on Derby day. Flukes happen all the time, and this was clearly one--no examples are to be drawn here.
2006: Barbaro. Barbaro became the first horse to win the Derby in over 60 years despite having not run in 4 weeks prior to the Derby. But was this really a big deal? The Florida Derby shifted the timing of its race the year before; prior to 2005, it was a March race that trainers used as a penultimate Derby prep. In 2005, they changed their schedule to put the Florida Derby 5 weeks before the Kentucky Derby, now making it (in all likelihood) the horse's final prep race. Horses before Barbaro that tried to win the Derby that hadn't run in 28+ days were coming into the Derby having skipped one of the final prep races either due to injury or moronic planning (much like Friesian Fire is doing this year). The nouveau Florida Derby is neither of those. The "five-week" phenomenon was a red herring, the question really was whether or not the horse partook in the final round of Derby preps, which had now expanded to include the Florida Derby. Barbaro did, and thus really broke no traditional rules.
2007: Street Sense. The winner of the 2006 Breeders Cup Juvenile breaks three rules. He was the first BC Juvy winner to take the Derby, which is silly to call a rule, because it not only had the small sample size problem, but also because precocity as a 2yo does not often translate into a good 3yo, especially given the emphasis in modern breeding towards speed. Second, he was the first 2yo champ in decades to win the Derby, but the advent of the BC Juvenile makes this redundant with the Juvy curse. Much more interesting, Street Sense was the first horse since Sunny's Halo (1983) to win the Derby with only 2 starts as a 3yo. A fair amount of the reason this happened is because he had a good 3yo campaign, but even so, this is a rule that was clearly broken, as many before him (including Point Given) had tried to do this and failed.
2008: Big Brown. Last year's Derby winner broke a lot of rules. Putting aside the Florida Derby inanity, he wasn't bred for the distance, had only run 3 times in his career, and only ran twice as a 3yo. So the rules mean nothing then right? No. Big Brown was talented, but no more talented than a few of the other horses already mentioned, and certainly no more talented than 3-7 horses in the mix this year. What was true was that Big Brown was the king of the worst crop of 3yo colts in a decade---a filly ran second in the Derby, and nobody from this group has topped a 105 Gowanus Speed Figure in a route race. Pure talent was enough to win the Derby in 2008 because the year was so poor. Had Curlin run against this group of horses off his three-start campaign, he would have won too. And Dunkirk would have been 6-5 in the Derby last year had he taken Big Brown's place.
So what's the conclusion? The one rule that's pretty clearly gone is that you need to have stout 1 1/4 mile breeding to win the Derby. And the mandate to have 3+ starts as a 3yo is probably gone, as two starts should suffice. (We're hesitant to say that no starts or one start as a 3yo will be enough--recency is still key.) But beyond that, if the crop of horses is decent or better, you still need to fall into the traditional rules until proven otherwise. If it's a crappy crop of horses (which it's not this year), then yes, look beyond the traditional guidelines. But otherwise, a horse still needs to hit a lot of points on the checklist to be a viable contender in the Derby, unless you're backing a wild 50-1 shot for the hell of it.
In the next couple of days, we'll break down the field and see who does and doesn't belong based on history, talent and yes, the rules. It's a deep and talented pool this year, and should be fun to analyze.