Friday, April 27, 2012

2012 Kentucky Derby Preview Part I: The Last Rule Standing

In our first year as online authors, we blogged about the various and sundry Rules that apply to picking a horse to win the Kentucky Derby.  Since that post, one by one, most of the Rules have been broken, sometimes repeatedly.  For example:
  • 3 or more starts as a three-year old.  As of 2007, only one horse in over 50 years (Sunny's Halo) had won the Derby without making at least 3 starts as a three-year old.  No sooner did we write this than Street Sense broke the rule.  In fact, every horse that's won the Derby from 2007 forward did so with only two starts as a 3 year old.
  • A race within the last 4 weeks.  As we noted in '07, this rule was broken by Barbaro in 2006 because the Florida Derby was moved to five weeks out.  Then Big Brown did the same thing in 2008.  Animal Kingdom raised this a notch by winning the Spiral six weeks out and then taking the Derby last year.
  • A 106+ GSF before the Derby.  This had been a requirement since they started posting speed figures.  But it hasn't happened since Big Brown in 2008.
  • 3 or more career wins.  We noted five years ago that the average Derby winner had 3 prior wins.  Neither Animal Kingdom nor Super Saver fit this bill.
  • 5 or more career starts before the Derby.  Animal Kingdom won the roses last year with 4 prior starts. Even more of a deviation from the norm, Big Brown won the Derby off of 3 career starts, which had not been done since 1915.
  • The Juvenile Curse.  Street Sense broke this in 2007.
So it's pretty clear that what worked in 1992 isn't as important in 2012.  There are a variety of reasons for this shift: horses making fewer starts, new training methods, prep races that are spaced out over time and at new tracks, the influence of drugs and medications and the ban on steroids, and the prevalence of speed breeding.  This hasn't quite turned the Derby on its proverbial head, but has opened the door to a variety of horses that wouldn't have been contenders as recently as 7 years ago.

*               *               *

One Kentucky Derby Rule remains and is the gold standard of rules: no horse other than Apollo has won the Derby without running a race as a two-year old.  And Apollo did it in 1882, meaning it's been 130 years since this has happened.

Now this isn't a rule that has no bearing on a race's outcome, like saying that no white horse can win the Derby.  Nor is it a rule with a small sample size, such as noting that an Idaho-bred has never won the Derby.  In the past 75 years, 56 horses have tried winning the Derby without running as a two year old and all failed.  And many of that failed were legitimately good horses.  All of them lost.  This includes three legitimate Hall of Fame horses, Coaltown (2d, 1948), Forego (4th, 1973) and Curlin (3d, 2007).  It also includes horses that won other Triple Crown races (Summer Bird), multiple Grade 1 races (Devil His Due, Wavering Monarch, Showing Up, Pulpit), and horses that were extremely solid perfomers (Strodes Creek, Corporate Report, Twice a Prince).

Why has this "curse" held up so well over the years when good horses have tried to tackle it repeatedly?  Our favorite turf writer, Plagiarizing Andy Beyer, asked trainer Carl Nafzger this many moons ago, which we've quoted in the past but is worth repeating here:

Why should a horse's performance on the first Saturday in May be affected by what he did a year earlier? I once put this question to Carl Nafzger (who trains Curlin's main rival, Street Sense), and he replied: "When a horse runs even one race as a 2-year-old, he had to get fit to get there, and he gets a lot of experience." Behind a single inconsequential-looking race in the past performances, there are months of training that are a crucial part of the animal's overall preparation.
In short, the Derby isn't a race that you can prepare for quickly.  It comes after a key amount of training and run-up, and part of that is the preparation and foundation as a two-year old.  This is why even Big Brown's start as a 2yo mattered.

*               *               *

The Curse of Apollo is back in the limelight again because our probable favorite for the Derby this year is Bodemeister, who did not run as a 2yo and comes in off of 4 starts as a 3 year old, culminating in a strong win in the Arkansas Derby:


Now normally we'd say dismiss Bodemeister as a contender, because hell, Curlin couldn't do break Apollo's curse, so why should he?  What makes Bodemeister's bid more interesting is that there's a good chance he's the best horse in the race right now.  This hasn't usually been the case, because in the most serious bids for the Derby by a horse that didn't race as a 2yo, the competition was stiff:
  • Coaltown went against Citation, one of the three greatest horses ever.
  • Forego went against Secretariat, to say nothing of Sham.
  • Curlin went against Street Sense, who was the defending 2yo champion and was peaking coming into the Derby.
  • Pulpit, who was the favorite in 1997, ran into Hall of Famer Silver Charm, buzzsaw Captain Bodgit, and a hard knocker in Free House.
Right now, there doesn't appear to be a horse running in the Derby with the talent of Street Sense, let alone Silver Charm or Citation.  It's an interesting and deep crop with a lot of horses that were prominent in their juvenile seasons still around, and in some cases, having improved.  Any of Union Rags, I'll Have Another, Dullahan or Gemologist could take a big step forward on May 5 and vault himself into that echelon of excellent horses.  And, in the process, end all the hype for Bodemeister.

But there just hasn't been much in the way of proof this is going to happen.  Bodemeister has popped 3 triple-digit Gowanus Speed Figures; nobody else has topped 100 more than once.  Bodemeister has great tactical speed and doesn't appear to need the lead, which isn't true for many of the other top contenders.  And he has Bob Baffert on his side--while Baffert hasn't won the Derby in 10 years, he's still among the best in getting a horse ready for the race.

Next week, we'll do our annual countdown of the Derby horses, and ask ourselves the question whether we're dealing with a beast that's the best of a decent class, or whether his competitors can rise to the level of performance that Bodemeister has shown in his brief career.  This is a fun crop of horses, and promises to be a fun Triple Crown season, let's hope they deliver some memorable performances in the process.


Anonymous said...

$50 Trifecta Box:

I'll Have Another
Creative Cause
Union Rags

Looking forward to the GRBC Derby Preview!

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