The Road to the Kentucky Derby never stops. Moreover the
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has been decided so it’s time to switch gears towards
the first Saturday in May. However, this road is a marathon and we’ve only just
begun. In the months ahead more potential hopefuls will emerge, contenders will
be ranked and then re-ranked but it’s never too early to begin the discussion.
Before we dive into a mysterious derby trend let me
begin by answering a few of the obvious questions surrounding the pinnacle race
for 2-yr-olds. Yes, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile should always be considered a
solid derby prep. Regardless of its date on the calendar it still carries all
of the important elements that any prep will feature over the coming months.
For example, the race includes two turns, Grade 1 class, a purse as big as or
even bigger than any other and it features connections that are already aiming
for the roses. Finally, the Juvenile is where derby fever reaches its peak in
the 2-yr-old racing season.
After taking all of these things into account this is
where I’m constantly stuck on the same question that eludes me. Since
its inception in 1984 why has only one horse won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and
the Kentucky Derby?
Street Sense is the only horse that holds the honor of
scoring one of the most remarkable doubles in horse racing. Agree or
disagree, the Kentucky Derby has become a race that is carefully analyzed by its
trends, droughts and overdue accomplishments. While some of these trends
have ended abruptly over the past several years, where one trend ends another
one begins. Sure Street Sense became the first but until it happens again the
years will be counted.
Because of this, Shanghai Bobby will be watched
carefully on his journey towards the Kentucky Derby. As for any of the horses in
the field that finished behind him, including He's Had Enough, there is another trend that doesn’t put
the odds of a Kentucky Derby victory in their favor either.
You can throw this trend out immediately or chew on it
for a little bit. It’s up to you, but for me personally this one is even more
surprising than the Juvenile-Derby double.
In the history of the Breeders’ Cup only five horses that entered the Juvenile went on to win the Kentucky Derby the
following year. That’s 5 for 28, not a very attractive stat. If anything convinced me that the
number was going to climb to six in 2012 it was the amount of possibilities.
This spring we saw a fascinating number of horses return to Churchill Downs for
the Kentucky Derby following a commendable effort in the Juvenile. Eight horses
to be precise. Led by the winner Hansen were the horses that finished 2nd
thru 5th (Union Rags, Creative Cause, Dullahan, Take Charge Indy) along
with Alpha, Prospective and Daddy Long Legs. If you didn’t think that any of
these eight had a shot at winning the roses you must not have been looking at
the right program. But it wasn’t their day and instead, it belonged to I’ll Have Another.
Thus, another year has passed that a
Juvenile entry could not win the Kentucky Derby. Here are the Champions that did followed by where they finished in the
That Bird, 2008-09 (12th)
Sense, 2006-07 (1st)
Hero, 1992-93 (7th)
a Buck, 1984-85 (3rd)
This leads to a question that I put
out to you: Is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile often purposely avoided in order to increase
the chances of Kentucky Derby glory? There’s plenty of discussion that
could follow that question because we could go on for hours talking about
unpredictable 2-year-old’s, injuries, when to rest vs. when to race or the
most interesting conversation of them all, calculated strategy.
With the Kentucky Derby being the ultimate
prize for a young horse and its connections, some trainers know immediately
when their horse has the makeup of a champion. In a number of these
instances is when a trainer may carefully dodge the Juvenile to avoid an early
bloom and instead be ready for the big one. This is a strategy move that
has paid off.
An example of a horse that may have met this profile
is the late great, Barbaro and his trainer, Michael Matz.
He started his 2 yr old campaign in October of 2005 when entering a MSW over a distance
of 1 Mile. After winning his debut, Barbaro raced only once more in his
2-yr-old season. Following the Florida Derby he
entered the Kentucky Derby a perfect 5 for 5. He was clearly the best that
day and his performance proved that he was ready for the main event at just the
right time. It may not have been an intentional late start but his light racing
at age 2 still comes into the picture when analyzing his road to the Kentucky
Of course there is the element of surprise.
Horses can be quite
immature at such a young age; None of us know anything
about that by the way. Some of the sport’s most brilliant horses don’t have any
interest in discovering or reaching their full potential until turning three thus eliminating the Juvenile as an option. Trainers for these horses may tell you that they
knew he was a Kentucky Derby winner all along. That just comes with the
territory but early doubts can be clear. How clear is a great question so how about this; Does a Claiming Race sound
like a quality Derby Prep?
It’s been well documented but anyone that doesn’t
recall let’s rewind to Charismatic. His road to the roses wasn’t a
smooth ride. After scuttling at age 2 and during the beginning of the season at
age 3, D. Wayne Lukas made a bold move when he fielded his colt in his
first ever Graded Stakes, the Santa Catalina. The reason I defined it as bold
is because he entered him after only a single maiden victory and a record that
was all over the place (8: 1-0-3). The results didn’t get much better. After
a disappointing 5th the doubts had to be there as
Lukas moved him from Grade 2 Stakes to a $65k claiming race. But as the
story goes it was the race and the win that got the progression towards
brilliance underway. As erratic as he was until the spring of ’99,
Charismatic turned out to be a true champion. If you’re like me he was proof
that he that just needed a little bit of time before he could reach his full
These are just a couple different examples
of routes around the Juvenile. Both avenues towards May are legitimate and there are many more that are comparable. But, in my estimation the amount of Kentucky Derby winners that made a stop at the Juvenile along the way are too few.
At this stage of the lengthy Road to the Derby I am
not yet willing to bet on any of the Juvenile entries to win the 139th
Kentucky Derby. I guess you could say that right now I’m playing the trend but
if I had to I would probably lay down the loyalty card and stick with the horse
that I played in the Juvenile, Power Broker. Another thing I will point however
is that Shanghai Bobby hasn’t done anything wrong because winning is all that he is doing. I definitely
give him better odds than let’s say Hansen last year but until we get closer I can’t
assume that he’s on a path towards destiny. But can you?
I will revisit this conversation once we get closer
to May but for now I can only wish our entries a safe and healthy ride. As for
the hardest double in horse racing, there’s still Street Sense. Like all
Kentucky Derby trends, it will end and this will happen again. Time will tell
when that will be but we’ll keep an eye on it until it does.
In the meantime, we should buckle up race fans, the
march towards May is underway and we’re only getting started.