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Past the Grandstand

Kentucky Derby 2013: Where It All Began

Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
There’s the Super Bowl. There’s the World Series. There’s the NBA Finals. There’s the Stanley Cup. There’s the Daytona 500. And there’s the Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby is American racing’s staple event. Attracting twenty elite three-year-old Thoroughbreds every year, the mile and one-quarter race – contested under Churchill Downs’ iconic twin spires – is the most esteemed of the year, creating a fortune of discussion and excitement. From the moment two-year-old races begin, anticipation for the next year’s Run for the Roses commences as racing enthusiasts strive to “discover” the next Derby winner.

Often, horses that break their maiden in remarkable fashion – typically by a large margin – at renowned tracks are those that find themselves on early Derby watch lists, especially those that win their debut. But a large portion of the horses in this year’s Derby field did not break their maiden in their initial trip to the races and few of them were overwhelmingly impressive in their maiden scores.

Take a look back at the beginnings of the careers of the twenty horses aligned for the 2013 Run for the Roses:

1. Black Onyx: Originally trained by Carl Domino, Black Onyx debuted at Belmont Park last October against three rivals in a mile and one-sixteenth maiden special weight over the expansive dirt track that had originally been scheduled for the same distance on the turf. He was defeated by 6 ¼ lengths by Irsaal, a horse that has not won since. Black Onyx finished second, clearing the third-place runner by a margin of 6 ½ lengths. After one month had elapsed, Black Onyx went to post for the second time, this time at Aqueduct. Nine other two-year-olds lined up to face the blaze-faced colt in yet another race that had been taken off the turf. The dark colt settled behind the leaders down the backstretch of the one-mile contest, gradually improving his position before swinging to the outside around the far turn, leading the field into the homestretch. He held sway, drawing away to a clear 2 ¼-length triumph. Although it was a good maiden score, his name did not immediately jump to the top of watch lists.

2. Oxbow: Most people would not expect for a horse that is pulled up and vanned off in the initial start of its career to make it to the Kentucky Derby. But Oxbow has done just that. After such an incident occurred in his first start at Saratoga, the D. Wayne Lukas trainee pressed the pace in a maiden special weight at Keeneland before weakening to fourth. The winner of that race was Winning Cause, who would go on to win the Lexington Stakes (GIII). Less than two weeks later, Oxbow made his third start at Churchill Downs, setting the pace before fading to third. His initial three starts were far from implications that Oxbow would land a position on watch lists, but he proved that assumption wrong with a dominant victory in the fourth start of his career. On closing weekend at Churchill Downs, the three-quarters brother to Paynter set a brisk pace before kicking clear to a win that left his nearest rival 4 ¾ lengths behind.

3. Revolutionary: Although Revolutionary lost his first outing, he did gain attention from those who watched the race. The son of War Pass encountered trouble at the gate, being slammed into it and the rival next to him. This caused the Todd Pletcher trainee to check, thus losing any early speed he may have had. Revolutionary found more trouble than just a chaos-filled break; the colt also raced wide prior to running greenly, ducking in slightly. The five one half-furlong distance of the race was too short of an expanse for him to rediscover his full momentum, but despite his run of bad luck, Revolutionary offered a remarkable rally to finish a determined third. Crossing the wire ahead of him was the future stakes-placed Always in a Tiz and the eventual stakes-winning Clawback. Revolutionary then turned in a runner-up finish at Belmont and a third-place result at Aqueduct, the latter in which he finished behind eventual Florida Derby (gr. I) victor and Kentucky Derby morning line favorite Orb. December 28, 2012 marked the day that changed the course of Revolutionary’s career. Competing in a one-mile maiden special weight around Aqueduct’s inner oval, Revolutionary found a position just behind the leaders and as the seven-horse field approached the end of the far turn, the colt galloped to the lead and drew away with ease, capturing the race by 8 ½ lengths. The final clocking of the one-mile event fell a mere 0.73 seconds off the track record. This striking performance sparked much interest in the colt.

4. Golden Soul: He missed winning his debut by a head after closing impressively in a one-mile maiden special weight at Churchill Downs. Going to post for the second time in his career next out at the Fair Grounds, the son of Perfect Soul settled off the pacesetters prior to drawing off to a 7 ¼-length victory that caught the attention of many.

5. Normandy Invasion: Following a slightly poor start, Normandy Invasion finished a disappointing fifth in his debut, which took place in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Belmont Park last September. But he rebounded with a breathtaking score in his second start, coming from off the pace and going wide throughout his stunning rally to capture a mile-long maiden special weight at Aqueduct by 9 ¼ lengths. Normandy Invasion hasn’t won since, but has turned in solid performances against graded stakes company.

6. Mylute: A horse with unique beginnings, Mylute was a distant third in his debut at Churchill Downs, bested 9 ¼ lengths by the eventual graded stakes-winning Circle Unbroken. Despite this loss, he made his subsequent start in the Prairie Gold Juvenile Stakes at Prairie Meadows, losing by just a neck after a troubled trip. Mylute broke his maiden in his third start, which came over the all-weather surface at Arlington Park. Rating off the leaders, the son of Midnight Lute raced very eagerly, causing his rider to hold him back. Trapped by rivals as the field rounded the far bend, a hole opened for Mylute as the horses galloped into the lane, which allowed him to seize the lead commandingly. Once in front, the gray colt seemed to take his job less seriously, but still outshone his opponents by 2 ¼ lengths.

7. Giant Finish: One of eight horses in the Derby that won his debut, Giant Finish was sent off as the second choice in a six-furlong state-bred maiden special weight at Aqueduct last November. Sitting behind the leader throughout the race, the chestnut colt was steadily urged throughout. Near the quarter pole, he drew even with the pacesetter prior to battling that rival in upper stretch in advance of drawing clear to win by 1 ½ lengths.

8. Goldencents: In one of the most impressive maiden scores of the horses in this field, Goldencents landed on many watch lists after debuting at Del Mar. Exhibiting notable early speed, Goldencents led from start to finish, posting brisk fractions before lengthening his advantage on the group behind him, winning by 7 ¼ lengths in a final time that was merely .09 seconds slower than the track mark for five and one-half furlongs.

9. Overanalyze: Debuting at Saratoga in the summer, a meet known for its two-year-old maiden races, Overanalyze controlled the pace of a five-furlong maiden special weight, setting quick fractions en route to winning the race by 1 ¼ lengths under a strong hand ride. Although it was a good maiden win, it was not heralded as one of the best of the meet.

10. Palace Malice: Revealed to the racing world last July in a five-furlong Belmont maiden special weight, Palace Malice endured traffic trouble that subdued his effort, resulting in his second-place finish behind the eventual graded stakes-placed runner Carried Interest. At Saratoga a month later, the son of Curlin acted up in the gate but broke away from it well, settling into a spot right behind the leaders. Following the leaders closely, Palace Malice maintained a wide run before masterfully grabbing the lead around the curve en route to a powerful 3 ½-length triumph. The third-place finisher in that race was Hightail, who would go on to capture the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint.

11. Lines of Battle: The lone horse in the field to debut outside of the United States, Lines of Battle made his first start at The Curragh Racecourse in Ireland near the end of last May. Going six furlongs, the son of War Front sat behind the leaders prior to battling for the lead in the late stages of the race, prevailing by a head over Leitir Mor, who would go on to be a group three winner that has placed in several group stakes events.

12. Itsmyluckyday: Beginning his career on the first day of June last year at Monmouth Park, Itsmyluckyday assumed the role of runner-up, finishing 4 ¼ lengths behind the winner. Just over three weeks later, Itsmyluckyday competed in a maiden special weight at the same track, although this race was a sixteenth of a mile longer. Tracking the leaders throughout, the Eddie Plesa, Jr. trainee kicked clear in the final furlong, defeating his three competitors by 2 lengths.

13. Falling Sky: Facing a small field in his career debut at Calder Race Course last November, Falling Sky pressed the pace of a six-furlong maiden special weight in the early stages of the race prior to taking the lead and never looking back as he left the field 4 lengths behind at the wire in a rather plain time of 1:12.49.

14. Verrazano: Unveiled to the racing world on New Year's Day, Verrazano pressed the pace of a six and one-half-furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream Park while racing a few paths off the rail. In upper stretch, Verrazano advanced to the lead, drawing off to a 7 3/4-length triumph that earned the attention of many. The only horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby without any starts as a juvenile under his belt was Apollo in 1882.

15. Charming Kitten:
Sent off in a mile and one-sixteenth maiden special weight over a good turf course at Saratoga as the favorite in a field of ten, Charming Kitten tracked the leaders while racing wide. Asked for a run around the final bend, Charming Kitten made a powerful finish to draw clear of his competitors and win by 1 ¾ lengths.

16. Orb:
This colt did not break his maiden until his fourth start, though he had previously shown potential. Debuting at Saratoga, Orb reared at the start but still managed to offer a remarkable rally, finishing third. His next two starts came at Belmont and Aqueduct, respectively, and he finished fourth in both. Among the horses finishing ahead of him in these starts were the future graded stakes-winning Vyjack (a fellow Derby entrant) and the black-type-winning Clawback. In his second start at Aqueduct last November, Orb finally solved the puzzle. Patiently guided by Joel Rosario, Orb came from behind, going wide around the turn en route to an easy 2-length victory. The third-place finisher in that race? Revolutionary.

17. Will Take Charge: A $425,000 yearling purchase, Will Take Charge was a rather flat fifth in his debut at Saratoga. Transferring to the synthetic surface at Keeneland for his second start, Will Take Charge was devoid of early speed in the seven-furlong maiden special weight but made a move around the far turn, going very wide as the field entered the stretch. Rallying down the center of the track, Will Take Charge ground out a one-length victory.

18. Frac Daddy:
Belmont in October served as the setting of Frac Daddy's debut. Traveling one mile over the dirt oval, the gray colt settled just behind the pace. In the stretch, he ran greenly, ducking in prior to battling down the lane with the eventual winner. Although the victor drew clear from Frac Daddy in the late stages of the race, Frac Daddy finished 13 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. A month later, below the twin spires of Churchill Downs, Frac Daddy broke his maiden, and in impressive fashion. Tracking the pace, Frac Daddy raced slightly wide into the far turn and inched closer to the lead down the backstretch. Challenging the frontrunners around the far turn, Frac Daddy stormed to a 9 ¾-length triumph that impressed many.

19. Java's War:
Fifth in his debut in a five-furlong turf maiden special weight at Churchill Downs, Java's War shipped to Ellis Park for a maiden special weight going one mile on the grass. Rating a short distance from the pace, Java's War was steadied on the first curve but remained comfortable. The Kenny McPeek trainee raced wide before kicking clear in the stretch to score by 1 3/4 lengths, becoming the late War Pass' first winner.

20. Vyjack:
Racing to the outside of the leader, Clawback, and between rivals, Vyjack pressed the pace of a six and one-half-furlong maiden special weight at Aqueduct in his debut. Once his rider lessened the restraint on the reins, the gelding accelerated, dueling with Clawback down the lane before kicking clear to win by 1 ¾ lengths. Finishing fourth was none other than the morning line favorite for the Derby, Orb.

This year’s Derby field proves that a horse need not dominate its debut to become a Kentucky Derby starter. Eight of the horses entered in the 139th installment of the Run for the Roses won first time out; an additional eight broke their maiden in their second start. The other four horses took three or four outings to find the winner’s circle.

As for the past twenty Kentucky Derby winners, seven won upon debut, eight won in their second outing, and five took three or more tries to break their maiden. I’ll Have Another, last year’s Derby victor, is the most Derby winner that won his debut. Animal Kingdom, who won the Derby two years ago, is the most recent Derby winner to have earned a win in his second start. A horse that took three attempts or more to win the Derby has not won the grand race since Monarchos in 2001, but it is intriguing to note that two of the horses in the past twenty years that fell one race short of winning the Triple Crown took numerous attempts to break their maidens: Charismatic, the 1999 Derby winner, did not break his maiden until his sixth outing and Real Quiet, who captured the 1998 Kentucky Derby, needed seven attempts to finally win.

Of course, what the twenty horses entered in the Derby have done after their maiden victories is what’s most important. All of these horses – even the ones with the lowest accumulation of points – have earned their place in the starting gate for this classic. The Kentucky Derby is, of course, a race, but it is not “just a race.” Even the maiden races in which these starters competed earlier in their careers weren’t “just races.” After all, they produced at least one Kentucky Derby starter from the near-26,000 Thoroughbreds born in 2010.


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About Mary Cage


Mary with champion Classic Empire

Mary Cage, a 21-year-old avid fan of horse racing, has been around horses all her life, having owned, shown, and judged them for as long as she can remember. She began writing her own horse racing blog, Past the Grandstand, in August 2011 and has since been published in America's Horse, American Racehorse and the Appaloosa Journal, as well as with the websites of The Blood-Horse and The Equine Chronicle. She has also had photos published with Paulick Report and Thoroughbred Daily News. In addition, she works as one of the social media coordinators for the Texas Thoroughbred Association and has interned at WinStar Farm with a marketing focus - with projects involving photography, videography, giving tours, data entry, etc. 

In her personal horse experience, Mary has been around horses all her life and has won several Appaloosa National Champion and Reserve World Champion titles in the show ring. She has also worked as a hotwalker and groom.

Mary has always aspired to have a career with horses and since her love for horse racing began, she has dreamed of pursuing a career in the Thoroughbred racing industry, possibly as a writer/photographer and marketing/communications specialist. She is currently attending the University of North Texas, where she is a journalism major with a concentration in advertising and a minor in marketing. With this blog, she hopes to show readers horse racing through the eyes of a young fan and transport you to some of racing's biggest events through her photos and words.

University of Louisville College of Business Equine Program

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