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Top trainers expect Kentucky Derby's 'Apollo Curse' to end

It's one of the 2018 Kentucky Derby's top story lines: Two contenders –Justify and Magnum Moon – will attempt to end the so-called "curse of Apollo."

Prominent trainers are in agreement that a streak dating back to 1882 will be broken. The only question is, when?


Just once in the Derby's 143-year history has a horse won the race having not raced at age 2. In 1882, Apollo went off at 10-1 and upset the favorite Runnymeade over a muddy track. Horses trying to match him are 
61-0-3-5 since 1937, the extent of Churchill Downs' records on the topic.

But the aforementioned colts come from top barns and could go off as the No. 1 and 2 choices May 5 at Churchill Downs.

“The trend is a lot different now than it was however many years ago you want to go back," said Todd Pletcher, who trains Magnum Moon, the last-out Arkansas Derby winner who's 4-for-4 in his career. "Horses just don’t run as many times leading into the Derby as they used to.

"So I think ultimately, at some point talent will prevail and some horse will be able to overcome it. It’s great to have experience coming into a big field like this, but even if you have tons of experience, things can go wrong at the break, and it doesn’t matter if you raced at 2 or not.”


Justify, trained by Bob Baffert, is a perfect 3-for-3. He was an impressive maiden and allowance winner at Santa Anita Park, then beat Bolt d’Oro by three lengths in the Santa Anita Derby. With that victory, he picked up 100 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, securing a spot in the starting gate.

An old quarter horse rival of Baffert's, fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas doesn't consider the "Apollo Curse" a true hex.

"I’d rather jinx Bob Baffert," he joked, with Lukas set to saddle Bravazo in the Derby.

Baffert most recently won the 2015 Kentucky Derby with American Pharoah, who went on to sweep the Triple Crown. Lukas is seeking his first Derby win since Charismatic in 1999.

“If you give a good horse to Bob Baffert, I don’t care if he doesn’t turn 2 in May,” Lukas also said. “Let him have the prep races he’s had and lead him over here.”

Regarding Justify’s chances in the Derby, Lukas commented: “There’s one thing I’d be a little concerned about, and that’s a 20-horse field. Seeing that Bob’s got him, I don’t know. I think he’ll be just fine.”

Since 1937, according to Churchill Downs, Coaltown (1948), Strodes Creek (1994) and Bodemeister (2012) are Derby runner-ups without racing at 2.  Hampden (1946), Agitate (1974), Reinvested (1982), Curlin (2007) and Battle of Midway (2017) each finished third in the Derby.

Magnum Moon, also unbeaten, has an extra start on Justify having raced for the first time on Jan. 13. Plus, he has shipped and won. The Todd Pletcher trainee won his debut at Gulfstream Park, picked up an allowance win at Tampa Bay Downs, then took both the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. He sits at the top of the leaderboard with 150 points.

Although it’s possible for a horse to win without starting at 2, other trainers agree a foundation does help.

Trainer Chad Brown will send out Good Magic, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Champion and Eclipse 2-year-old champion, but doesn’t necessarily believe a horse without juvenile experience cannot win the Derby.

“My belief is things are just changing now within the breed. I still believe it helps to have the 2-year-old foundation,” Brown said. “There’s a reason why horses just haven’t been able to do that for a really long time. That said, I think every year we’re seeing more horses qualify that didn’t start at 2. It’s just a matter of time, probably, until one of those horses wins the race..

Dale Romans, who trains Promises Fulfilled and Free Drop Billy, acknowledged the difficulty of not racing at 2 but also gave a nod to this year’s Derby contenders.
 

“I keep hearing about that curse of Apollo. It seems like everything we used to fear in Kentucky Derby history has gone down the wayside. Why not that? I’ll tell you: When Curlin couldn’t do it, it’s going to be hard for anybody to. But those are nice horses.”

Testing the "Apollo Curse" since 1937

Horse

Year

Finish

Battle of Midway

2017

3

Patch

2017

14

Materiality

2015

6

Verrazano

2013

14

Bodemeister*

2012

2

Midnight Interlude

2011

16

Summer Bird

2009

6

Dunkirk

2009

11

Curlin

2007

3

Showing Up

2006

6

Greeley's Galaxy

2005

11

Song of the Sword

2004

11

Atswhatimtalknbout

2003

4

Wheelaway

2000

5

Curule

2000

7

Trippi

2000

11

Desert Hero

1999

13

Valhol

1999

15

Pulpit

1997

4

Strodes Creek

1994

2

Devil His Due

1992

12

Disposal

1992

18

Corporate Report

1991

9

Alydavid

1991

14

Pendleton Ridge

1990

13

Wheatly Hall

1986

6

Zabaleta

1986

12

Irish Fighter

1985

11

Majestic Shore

1984

DNF

Reinvested

1982

3

Air Forbes Won*

1982

7

Wavering Monarch

1982

12

Flying Nashua

1981

8

Great Redeemer

1979

10

Chief of Dixieland

1978

9

Affiliate

1977

9

Best Person

1977

15

Amano

1976

4

On the Sly

1976

5

Media

1975

5

Bold Chapeau

1975

8

Agitate

1974

3

Confederate Yankee

1974

12

Forego

1973

4

Twice a Prince

1973

12

Big Spruce

1972

7

Kentuckian

1972

10

Dr. Neale

1972

15

Fourulla

1971

19

Gleaming Sword

1968

13

Our Dad

1959

15

Gone Fishin'

1958

8

No Regrets

1956

7

Fanfare

1951

5

Golden Birch

1951

19

Coaltown (e)*

1948

2

Hampden

1946

3

Perfect Bahram (e)*

1946

9

Rippey

1946

10

Bert G.

1945

14

Comenow

1944

12

                                    * race favorite
                                    (e) coupled entry

 

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