Derby Dozen: Four new trends emerge in picking champion

awincze@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2013 

  • Triple Crown

    Kentucky Derby

    When: Saturday, May 4

    Where: Churchill Downs

    Preakness Stakes

    When: Saturday, May 18

    Where: Pimlico Race Course at Baltimore

    Belmont Stakes

    When: Saturday,June 8

    Where: Belmont Park at Elmont, N.Y.

In hindsight it was all so obvious — from Mine That Bird's rail-hugging heist to Animal Kingdom's smashing dirt debut to I'll Have Another making a mockery out of what should have been a doomsday post.

As evidenced by their respective double-digit final odds, each of the above Kentucky Derby winners was carrying some handicapping skepticism en route to their triumphs on the first Saturday in May — be it a perceived lack of form or a decided absence of experience.

How could horses who had never won on dirt (Mine That Bird) or even started over such a surface (Animal Kingdom) be expected to win, especially when guided by trainers with limited Derby knowledge? And if no 3-year-old had ever left from post No. 19 and ended up in the winner's circle, it was hard to think a colt who had only begun to shine in his prior two starts (I'll Have Another) was going to be that kind of special.

However, according to certain trends that have become prevalent in the first leg of the Triple Crown, the term "upset winner" didn't need to be applied to the above trio. If anything, recent history has told us they were actually near-perfect embodiments of what the current-day Kentucky Derby winner has come to look like.

When an event has been contested for 138 years as the Kentucky Derby has, cyclical patterns are going to come and go like shifts in the Bluegrass weather. Just when it seems there are some hard and fast guidelines for getting a sophomore in position to win in the hardest race of its life, such protocols take on the role of dominos tumbling over one another.

With the rubber now being laid down on the 2013 road to the Kentucky Derby, predicting which 3-year-old is going to be the one this season is now the pastime of choice in the Thoroughbred world.

In an effort to take some of the mystique out of identifying which of the more than 27,000 foals born in 2010 will prevail, below are some of the traits that have become the new normal where the recent spate of Derby winners are concerned.

Trend No 1: They were relatively quiet as a baby

While precocity at the highest level is a treasured commodity in the industry, being a brilliant juvenile has not necessarily panned out as the best way to join the pantheon of Derby victors of late.

Since 1980, only five Kentucky Derby winners have been Grade I winners at age 2 — the last being 2007 Derby winner Street Sense, who is also the only Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner to pull off the double.

Getting a juvenile to turn the corner developmentally is a challenge for any horseman, never mind the task of trying to get one already ahead of the curve to unearth new dimensions as others catch up.

Further contributing to this pattern is that fewer juveniles seem to be showing up for some of the top contests. Reigning juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby had just five others line up against him in last year's Grade I Champagne Stakes and only had eight challengers while winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Which leads us to ...

Trend No. 2: They're taking the less-is-more approach

Until Street Sense broke the curse six years ago, only six horses since 1937 had won the Derby by starting just twice prior as a 3-year-old.

Since 2007, however, every Kentucky Derby winner has taken the two-prep route as that has now become the path du jour.

Now that this year's Derby field will be determined by a points system rather than the previous method of using graded stakes earnings, the amount of horses going the spaced-out route could diminish. Still, champion Shanghai Bobby is already among those slated to have just two preps, with the Grade I Florida Derby his target after running second in the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes in January.

"If you look at the Derby the way it's been run the last five or six years, it just seems that these horses who are more lightly raced — the Bodemeisters of the world — they seem to be doing better," said Bryan Sullivan, managing partner of Let's Go Stable, which campaigns undefeated Derby contender Verrazano. "Even I'll Have Another, he did race at 2, but he was managed very judiciously as a 3-year-old."

Trend No. 3: Trainers without Derby wins need not feel intimidated

There was a six-year stretch at the end of the 1990s where if your name was not Lukas, Baffert or Zito, you simply didn't win on the first Saturday in May.

Beginning with Neil Drysdale in 2000, newer faces have become the norm. Eleven trainers have won the Derby for the first time in their careers during the past 13 runnings, including nine of the last 10.

Invaluable as it is for prior winners to be able to pinpoint the intangibles needed to conquer the Derby, the heightened level of parity further drives home how much the path to the winner's circle has changed.

"I think that just probably goes to show how difficult the race has become to win," said trainer Graham Motion, who earned his first Derby win when he saddled Animal Kingdom to victory in 2011 and was fourth last year with Went the Day Well. "I think it comes down to the same reason we haven't had a Triple Crown winner, it's very hard to win these races, much harder perhaps than it used to be when there wasn't always a full field in every race."

Trend No. 4: No falling backward into a victory

While a horse doesn't need to win its final prep race in order to peak on Derby Day, trying to bounce back from a serious drop in form just weeks out is probably not going to happen.

Since Unbridled's win in 1990, 18 Derby winners either won or finished second in their final prep races, 19 hit the board and none was worse than fourth.

Though it can be tempting to fire up excuses for horses with back class that have off days right before the Derby (see: Pyro, 2008 and Stay Thirsty and Soldat, 2011), such unyielding faith is not rewarded at the windows.

"I think what I would take from last year is to stay aggressive," said Doug O'Neill, who brought last year's winner I'll Have Another in off a victory in the Santa Anita Derby. "The other two I ran in 2007 (Great Hunter, 13th and Liquidity, 14th) we took that approach of like, let's just get there. And what we learned last year is yeah, we're hoping to get there but if we do get in the gate, we want these horses trained as aggressively going in as he was to what got him there."


Triple Crown

Kentucky Derby

When: Saturday, May 4

Where: Churchill Downs

Preakness Stakes

When: Saturday, May 18

Where: Pimlico Race Course at Baltimore

Belmont Stakes

When: Saturday,June 8

Where: Belmont Park at Elmont, N.Y.

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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