- 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.
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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.
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.
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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:
- 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.
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.