If the hands of time could be turned back, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin would love for the video of the 2011 Grade I Champagne Stakes to show Alpha running past Union Rags for the win instead of battling for runner-up money.
After all, in a sport that saves its most revered prize for 3-year-olds, there might be nothing better than knowing the sophomore in your barn already proved he could handle the best his classmates had to offer.
Should Alpha give McLaughlin his first Kentucky Derby triumph this May, however, the Lexington-born trainer might be grateful the son of Bernardini was 51/4 lengths short of victory in his first Grade I outing last October.
Because, ironically, the same 11/4-mile classic that asks its young stars to display ability beyond their years has not been kind to its most precocious participants in recent decades.
With the flip of the calendar every Jan. 1 comes the annual guessing game in the racing community as to which newly turned 3-year-old will reign on the first Saturday in May. Not surprisingly, the majority of horses who dominate the early discussions displayed top-level ability as 2-year-olds — a pack led this season by Union Rags, reigning juvenile champion Hansen, and fellow Grade I winner Creative Cause.
Recent history has shown, though, that the best 2-year-old does not a Kentucky Derby victor make. Since 1980, only five Derby winners have been Grade I winners at 2: Swale (1984), Spend a Buck (1985), Sea Hero (1993), Real Quiet (1998) and Street Sense (2007).
Getting any horse to maintain its form over an extended period is a challenge, more so with still-developing babies. Great as it is to have a racehorse who displays exceptional talent at any stage, some juveniles who peak early might end up being like the fifth-grader who is already shaving — eventually, the rest of the kids catch up.
"The problem is, the Derby is not run early enough in the year to carry over 2-year-old form," said trainer Ian Wilkes, who conditions Lantern Hill Farm's Derby prospect, Motor City, and was a former assistant to Street Sense's trainer, Carl Nafzger. "A lot of these horses, when they turn 3, they're only just starting to mature, so you're getting these horses who are just on the bubble of turning into a nice horse ... .
"It takes a special horse like a Street Sense to carry that over, but that doesn't happen very often. Some do, but a lot of the horses mature, and they've caught up to those good 2-year-olds. That's the biggest thing."
One of the biggest training trends over the past several years has been to give horses fewer starts — a factor some say might also contribute to the lack of juvenile Grade I winners making the Derby leap.
The desire to give young talent more time and have a fresher horse for the potential Derby grind has at times been reflected in reduced entries for those top-level contests.
"I think training has sort of changed a little bit over the last few years in that we're seeing maybe less emphasis on 2-year-old racing and fewer starts from the 2-year-olds," said five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, who won his first Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver. "And the ones that do run, the races are so competitive and so fast that they can take a toll on them.
"There are so many different variables that are out of everyone's control," Pletcher continued. "You can dissect, especially the Derby, a thousand different ways. There is only one winner each year, so ... there is a lot more data on unsuccessful attempts than there is on successful ones."
Pletcher has always been a major player in top 2-year-old races, subscribing to the philosophy of taking what's in front of him.
"If you focus everything around trying to get the Derby, your disappointments are going to far outweigh any accomplishments you have along the way," he said.
Still, some of his major clients make a conscientious choice not to get too wrapped up in Grade I hype too soon. WinStar Farm, which bred and campaigned Super Saver and has the Pletcher-trained Gemologist on the trail this year, has never started a horse in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Of the 11 Kentucky Derby starters WinStar has had either solely or in partnership, not one was a Grade I winner at 2.
"Quite honestly, if you look at our Derby starters and the horses we've had success with, they followed a fairly similar pattern," said WinStar Farm President Elliott Walden. "That is, they don't get started until the middle of the summer of their 2-year-old year, they run in a decent 2-year-old race — but not the Breeders' Cup Juvenile — and then get time off until February or March."
Though he finished sixth in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, current Coolmore Stud stallion Lookin At Lucky is a recent example of a horse whose promise held up as he became the first horse since Spectacular Bid to be named champion 2-year-old male and 3-year-old male.
So if that special athlete comes along, historical trends shouldn't matter.
"I don't think there is any one common denominator except you have to look at all attributes of a horse ... and try and get them to that point where they'll be ready to run in the Derby," said Michael Matz, trainer of Union Rags and of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro.
But for those whose horses are just now starting to hit their best strides, "better late than never" is a cliche they'll be clinging to in the coming months.
"We would have loved to have won the Champagne and hoped for the best," McLaughlin said of Alpha, who earned his first graded-stakes score on Feb. 4 when he won the Grade III Withers. "But it is hard to keep them sharp and at the top of their game. Right now, we're on the trail, and ... we have one of the best colts on the path to the Derby."