The name Apollo becomes a dirty word around some barns this time of year — and not because of a random backstretch suspicion regarding Greek Gods.
No, invoking the equine Apollo refers to a so-called curse in Thoroughbred racing: No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without a start as a 2-year-old since Apollo did so in 1882.
From Curlin in 2007 to Bodemeister in 2012 and Verrazano last year, it has become increasingly commonplace to see over-the-top talents not debut until their 3-year-old season yet still come into the first Saturday in May with bettors thinking this could be the year the streak ends.
WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing have one such potential contender in unbeaten Constitution, winner of two career starts and looming wild card for Saturday's Grade I, $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Constitution didn't debut until Jan. 11 when he broke his maiden in eye-catching fashion at Gulfstream going 7 furlongs.
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In his follow-up outing, a 11⁄16-mile allowance on Feb. 22, Constitution lit up the Gulfstream surface with a 31/4-length, gate-to-wire victory over what was regarded as a stakes-quality bunch. A top-three finish in the Florida Derby would give him a realistic chance of qualifying for the Kentucky Derby on points, but the Run for the Roses would mark only his fourth career start — a strike not even two-time Horse of the Year Curlin could overcome.
Whether it's his colt, Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity, or some other quick-maturing talent, WinStar Farm President Elliott Walden believes the current style of training and emphasis on the last round of preps means Apollo's days of infamy are closer than ever to being numbered.
"The stigma of not running at 2 is going to be broken within the next five years, maybe more than once," Walden said this week. "So I'm not worried about it. The way trainers train and the way the points system is, it sets everything up to try and get there late. It changes the way you do things so it will be broken in the next five years, I have no doubt."
Where Constitution had to rush up after getting away slow from the gate in his career debut, he was able to relax on the lead last time out, a trend Walden says he has continued to improve on in the mornings.
"Horses can go either way, especially the ones that are wound a little tight," Walden said. "They can either wind a little tighter or they learn to handle it, and he's done that. He's the kind of horse where ... early on he would be very rank but he's settled in his breezes. He used to throw his head up at the beginning of the breeze and want to go and the last month since the race, he's done really well."
The Derby Dozen
1. Cairo Prince: Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin expressed concern about possible rain in the forecast for the Florida Derby but added he feels the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes winner "would love the wet track, as long as it's not under water." He will likely be your Kentucky Derby favorite should he pull off the victory Saturday.
2. California Chrome: A great litmus test is on tap for next weekend when he and Candy Boy meet in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby. Both worked last Saturday with California Chrome clocking 4 furlongs in :47.40 at Los Alamitos, his first move since winning the Grade II San Felipe on March 8. "I got him galloping out (5 furlongs) in 1:002⁄5," trainer Art Sherman said after the move. "He was not wearing blinkers, because I didn't want him to work too fast, but he'll wear them in the Santa Anita Derby."
3. Candy Boy: Got flattered last weekend when Chitu, whom Candy Boy beat in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes, won the Grade III Sunland Derby over Midnight Hawk — himself a solid runner who looks to be a crack sprinter/miler but hasn't hung with the best stretching out. Also worked last Saturday going 6 furlongs in 1:12.80 at Santa Anita Park. "He'll have one more half-mile work next Saturday and ship to Santa Anita five days before the race," trainer John Sadler said.
4. Tapiture: The allegations levied against trainer Steve Asmussen by PETA are overshadowing the performances of his remaining runners — and that is a shame because this is a talented horse who has done nothing but move forward since the end of his 2-year-old season. The Arkansas Derby still is slated for his final prep race.
5. Intense Holiday: Co-owner Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing called Intense Holiday's bullet 4-furlong move in :48 flat two works back "a pleasant surprise. I couldn't have asked for more from the way he's training and the way he appears." Given the rain that hit Fair Grounds on Friday, he could be facing a sloppy track for the first time in the Louisiana Derby.
6. Samraat: Trainer Rick Violette has worked Samraat a mile in three of his last four moves, including breezing him in 1:44.05 on Friday at Palm Meadows in preparation for the Grade I Wood Memorial. Violette was expecting his charge to be somewhat knocked out in the aftermath of two gut-wrenching wins in the Grade III Withers and Gotham Stakes, but has been impressed with the endurance the colt continues to demonstrate. "If anything he came out of the Gotham a lot better than he did out of the Withers. He bounced back right away," Violette said Friday.
7. Hoppertunity: Trainer Bob Baffert told Santa Anita's publicity team that the Grade II Rebel Stakes winner is "possible" for the Santa Anita Derby next week. Has packed a lot of experience into the last few months, debuting on Jan. 4 and now getting set for what will be his fifth career start. Get the sense he may be one that thrives on more work.
8. General a Rod: Trainer Mike Maker said this week that we'll see "the true General a Rod once the distances increase." General a Rod has been bone-tough heading into Saturday's Florida Derby, and it speaks to his ability that he closed over the Keeneland Polytrack to break his maiden and also thrived on the speed-favoring Gulfstream Park surface.
9. Ring Weekend: Had his first move since winning the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.40 on Friday at Calder Race Course in preparation for the Calder Derby next weekend.
10. Social Inclusion: Another one trying to put an end to the notion that no 2-year-old form spells doomsday come Kentucky Derby Day. Quite simply, no one really knows what to make of him until he gets tested in the Grade I Wood Memorial.
11. Albano: Trainer Larry Jones said this week those seemingly easy fractions Albano got in the Risen Star might not have been so pedestrian given the way those horses who tried to challenge him backed up in the stretch. He's likely going to have to take back off the pace in the Louisiana Derby given his outside No. 10 post.
12. Wildcat Red: He's fast, he's tough and brilliant horses can outrun pedigree to a certain point. "I think it's going to be easier, still easier for him, because the pace is supposed to be slower," trainer Jose Garoffalo said of the Florida Derby's 11⁄8-mile distance. "I'm not worried about the extra half of a furlong in the race."
THE NEXT DOZEN
Chitu, Constitution, Bobby's Kitten, Strong Mandate, We Miss Artie, Uncle Sigh, Ride On Curlin, In Trouble, Vicar's in Trouble, Midnight Hawk, Conquest Titan, Vinceremos.