Photo: Benoit Photos
We've heard about it before in the past, but the question remains, how long will we continue to hear about it in the future? It almost ended two years ago. Then last year, many thought it definitely would come to a halt, but it didn't. Could 2014 finally be the year that it ceases to exist or will it continue to linger on for future generations to discuss. We'll find out the answer on the first Saturday in May.
All of you out there know IT as the "APOLLO curse". The 3-year old chestnut gelding won the eighth Kentucky Derby back in 1882 with out ever having raced as a 2-year old. The non-activity of being without a race as a juvenile, coupled with his Derby win the following year was the only time the feat has been accomplished in the history of the race. The situation doesn't unfold every season, but whenever we encounter an equine who didn't make the races as a 2-year old and finds itself heavily in midst of the Derby picture, we say the horse has the dreaded APOLLO curse to overcome. Since that eighth running, 131 Kentucky Derbies have been held with 39 of those contests showcasing a total of 58 horses trying to be THE one to end America's oldest curse in sports. Some of them were very good horses, but they all failed to win.
In 2012, BODEMEISTER, trained by Bob Baffert, came within yards of getting to the promised land and shutting the door on the curse, before going down to an agonizing narrow defeat. Last year, VERRAZANO, trained by Todd Pletcher, was thought to be the horse many handicappers were sure would be able to end the plight. But when it was all over, the Pletcher runner disappointed and finished 14th.
Now in 2014, both Kentucky Derby winning trainers are back again with horses having zero 2-year old experience that are either in the Derby or are on the cusp of getting their ticket stamped for the big show. Baffert has BAYERN and HOPPERTUNITY, while Pletcher has CONSTITUTION. Another horse joining in the fray that we can't ignore is SOCIAL INCLUSION, from the stable of conditioner Manny Azpurua. How many of the quartet get in Derby 140 remains to be seen. As of this writing, only HOPPERTUNITY is guaranteed a spot. The other three are still in need of enough points to push themselves safely into the Churchill Downs starting gate. The trio are very talented horses and quite capable of acquiring the necessary totals in the upcoming final prep races.
Is it really a curse, a hex, a jinx, or whatever malevolent name you want to give it? And why has this curse endured for well over a century and a quarter.
I've always held firm belief that even a single race as a juvenile is crucial to the horse's overall preparation, both mentally and physically, with that animal gaining all-important experience. The Derby isn't a race that you can prepare a runner for quickly. There is a tremendous amount of training, and part of the process is the preparation and foundation being instilled into the horse. This is why even one start as a 2-year old matters. Horses who don’t start racing until January of their 3-year old campaign lack the necessary preparation time of rivals who began racing the previous summer or fall.
However, on the other side of the coin, I'm also aware that times are changing. How things operated in the training of a racehorse, say 15 years ago, are not in vogue present day. New training methods are being employed. Juveniles are raced far less today than those from bygone era's. Prep races are being planned out at longer intervals by trainers. We are going to see more horses with non-existent 2-year old racing suddenly appear and propel themselves on the Derby trail in the coming years.
While some handicappers, still wedded to the "old-school" way of doing things, take the curse seriously, others that are willing to accept the changes, use the expression in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
Up until a couple of years ago, I always sided with the traditional thinking that a horse must have raced as a 2-year old to have any remote chance of winning the "Run for the Roses". Now, I find myself thinking flexibly outside the box. Despite his loss that added to the legendary APOLLO lore, BODEMEISTER opened my eyes, wiped the smirk off my face and really convinced me that the assignment of winning the Kentucky Derby just off 3-year old racing IS feasible. I don't know if 2014 will be the end all year, but one spring I truly believe it will occur.
Hell, there's no silly dreaded "curse", the right horse just hasn't come along yet.