Race of the Week 2017

Juvenile Jinx plays a part in picking a Derby winner

Shanghai Bobby and Rosie Napravnik (right) battle He's Had Enough and Mario Gutierrez to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California on November 3, 2012.

                                            By Danny Brewer

  The age-old question that burns brightly in the minds of many is quite simple in nature. For 139 years, people far and wide have often been perplexed by the same preponderance. “Who is going to win the Kentucky Derby?”

  When horseracing fans try to look for that ever-elusive answer, what is the best direction to head? Past perfomances and bloodlines are two of the more popular indicators. But if it is early in the Derby prep season, can the runnings of a two-year old always tell us what is going to happen once the racer begins his three-year old season?

  The so-called “juvenile jinx” has been alive and well for many years. Horses that have a great two-year old season capped off by a victory in the Breederrs’ Cup Juvenile race are usually nowhere to be found when the prance to the winner’s circle takes place on the first Saturday in May. In fact, since the beginning of the Breeders’ Cup in 1986, only Street Sense in 2007 won both races. But the jinx is not just for the winner of the previous year’s Cup race. Many other very promising two-year olds have fallen flat when the calendar turns and the Triple Crown races beckon.

  With that in mind, when looking for the answer to finding the answer, one has to wonder how a good two-year old becomes a great three-year old?

  “The key to the transformation is how the horse matures physically and mentally,” says Carl Nafzger, trainer of Street Sense. “Just like kids, horses mature at different times. How many kids do you know that are bigger at earlier ages and then there are some kids that don’t mature until later in life. These horses are the same as any other young athlete.  They can all develop differently at different stages of life. Some horses get better in their three year old year while others may stay the same or even regress.“

  The maturing of these athletes can often times be quite perplexing for horse trainers.  Since Street Sense put on his miraculous repeat performances in his two and three year old seasons between 2006 and 2007 some highly acclaimed two-year olds have fallen short at three. Midshipmen, Looking at Lucky, Uncle Mo, and Hansen all failed to win the roses. Looking at Lucky did take the Preakness Stakes, but the others fell victim for different reasons and were not the shining stars at three that they were as a juvenile.

  Carl Nafzger has long been known for his abilities as a horse trainer. Famous for his one-liners as well as his ability to train a horse up for a big race, Carl will quickly admit there was no special formula in preparing Street Sense for the transition from two to three. After taking the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by a record 10 lengths at two, Street Sense won the Tampa Bay Derby, Kentucky Derby, Jim Dandy Stakes, and Travers Stakes as a three-year old.

  “I just happened to be blessed with an exceptionally talented horse,” says Nafzger. “I didn’t really do anything differently other than we let him mature from November of his two-year old year to March of his three-year old season without much work. We let him grow and he went from being a talented horse to being an even more talented horse. I have always said, I have never trained a horse, the horse has always trained me.  Street Sense told me what he wanted to do and I just followed along.”

  Street Sense did indeed lead Nafzger to the winner’s circle. In doing so he became the first two-year old champion to win the Kentucky Derby since Spectacular Bid did so back in 1979. However, two year-old champs have not always struggled. “The Bid” capped off a fantastic decade for horseracing in the 1970’s. He was one of six two-year old champions (Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, Affirmed) to win the Kentucky Derby the following year. Considering the gap between juvenile champions and Derby champions in recent years, one has to wonder if things have changed in 21st century horse racing.

  “I really don’t think anything has changed much,” says Nafzger, who also won the Kentucky Derby in 1990 (Unbridled). “It is still the same today that nobody can take a horse to the Kentucky Derby, the horse has to take them. Trainers know what their horse can do because that is their job. Putting the horse in the right spot is the trainer’s job, but if the horse does not come through, there is not much you can do. You just try and take care of your horse and try and help them utilize their abilities in the most effective manner.”

  Last year’s two-year old champion, Shanghai Bobby, has already reached a bump in the road to the Kentucky Derby. Undefeated as a juvenile, Bobby was shanghaied in his first start at three as he finished a tiring second to Itsmyluckyday in the Holy Bull in January. Does that mean he will be another talented two-year old that fails to reach everyone’s expectations?

  Of course hype and hope are all part of the road to the Kentucky Derby in many ways. People in all walks of horseracing’s life dream of glory on the first Saturday in May and that is just one of the things that makes for the greatest two minutes in sports.

  “If we all knew what the formula was this would not be the sport it is,” says Nafzger. “Sometimes people get in the way with expectations and Mother Nature has something else to say about how things come out. You simply can’t predict how a horse is going to mature. As a trainer you just try and take care of him and hope he takes you where you want to go.”



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Older Comments about Juvenile Jinx plays a part in picking a Derby winner...

Thank you, interesting read and I'll have to research more about maturation in horses.
good analogies by Nafzger and interesting read

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