This final Derby Trail column before departing for Louisville is more of a potpourri of thoughts, scenarios, angles, trivia, and a touch of nonsense.
Before the major works start up, let’s take a preliminary look at the different aspects of this year’s Derby, beginning with historical trends. Although they will be prevalent this year, should we take them as seriously as we used to?
Dunkirk has a double whammy to overcome, including the mother of all whammies — the dreaded Apollo curse of never having raced as a 2-year-old. The other — only three career starts — was shattered last year by Big Brown after 93 years. This year’s field, however, is much more talented and deeper from top to bottom. It is interesting to note that in those 93 years, only eight horses attempted it before Curlin and Big Brown, and all of them were obscure longshots. So, in this day and age of handling horses with kid gloves, and with more and more talented horses paying little heed to this trend, it might not be as big an obstacle as one would think.
It is ironic that the three-career-start whammy has been broken, but four career starts still exists, with Exterminator in 1918 being the last to accomplish that. Quality Road will try to break that one.
As for Apollo, the last favorite to attempt to win the Derby without racing at 2 was Air Forbes Won in 1982 in what was a very weak Derby field. And he was not a strong favorite. Since then, the average price of the horses who have tried it is 25-1, not including the six horses who were in the mutuel field. The lowest priced horses at 5-1were Curlin and Pulpit, and Curlin had a troubled trip and came back the win the Preakness, and Pulpit came out of the race with career-ending injury. Is it an ideal way to go into the Derby? Certainly not. I am still a firm believer that a horse needs a good foundation for the Derby. But so many trends have been broken in recent years that we should at least keep an open mind about it, especially if the horse involved is as gifted as Dunkirk.
In 2006, Barbaro took care of the theory that you couldn’t win the Derby off a layoff of more than four weeks. That hadn’t been done since Needles in 1956, and now it’s been done twice in the last three years off five-week layoffs. And Hard Spun finished second in 2007 off a six-week layoff. The horse trying to make history this year is Friesan Fire, who comes from the same barn as Hard Spun.
Remember when you couldn’t win the Derby with only two starts as a 3-year-old? Sunny’s Halo (who had 11 starts at 2) was the only horse to accomplish that in 61 years. Well, Street Sense and Big Brown have done it the past two years. Since 1986, Bold Arrangement, Best Pal, Victory Gallop, Lion Heart, and Closing Argument all finished second coming off only two starts.
Let’s also remember that Funny Cide single-handedly destroyed two other so-called curses — being a gelding (Clyde Van Dusen in 1929) and a New York-bred (first-time in history).
So, even if you’re a believer in historic trends, as I have always been, remember that times are changing, and quickly. Who knows what a horse can accomplish nowadays?
There have been several comments recently, claiming that the Derby is a two-horse race between I Want Revenge and Quality Road, based on their superior speed figures. But let’s look at two possible scenarios that could result in potential upsets from opposite ends of the field.
The big question at this point is, who will be the pace factors? We know Papa Clem has early lick if they want to use it, but he came from fifth to win the Arkansas Derby. Will Godolphin run Regal Ransom, the front-running winner of the UAE Derby? If they do, he likely will be the pacesetter. And will the speedy Join in the Dance make the starting field? He currently is at No. 22, and his owners have said they will run if he gets in. And you can bet that his trainer, Todd Pletcher, would love to see him in there to cut out a good pace for Dunkirk.
If Godolphin wanted to use a little sly strategy, they could enter Regal Ransom to possibly keep Join in the Dance out. If they succeed, they could have the only true speed in the race with a legitimate shot to wire the field or help set it up for Desert Party. If Join in the Dance makes it into the race anyway, then they can scratch Regal Ransom if they want and save him for the Preakness.
For those jockeys who would tend to pay little attention to Regal Ransom on the lead, remember War Emblem. Regal Ransom is a horse who earned a spectacular “2” Thoro-Graph number in his career debut last year, so he has a strong foundation to fall back on.
The other distinct possibility is that if the pace is soft, Quality Road could go to the front. He probably has more natural speed than anyone in the field, and who in their right mind is going to want to take him on and pretty much kill their chances of winning?
If Regal Ransom and Join in the Dance both run there should be an honest pace. If the fractions are testing or start to pick up noticeably after five-eighths of a mile, remember that I Want Revenge, Quality Road, Friesan Fire, General Quarters, Musket Man, and Desert Party (although he could take farther back) all should be fairly close together and will be making their moves at around the same time. Most of those horses have registered triple-digit Beyers, including highs of 113 by I Want Revenge and Quality Road.
But, keep in mind the 2005 Derby, when the slower horses were supposedly no match for Wood Memorial winner Bellamy Road (120 Beyer), Arkansas Derby winner Afleet Alex (108 Beyer), Blue Grass winner Bandini (103 Beyer), Louisiana Derby winner High Limit (105 Beyer), Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy (106 Beyer), and Florida Derby winner High Fly (102 Beyer). All, with the exception of Afleet Alex, had similar running styles to the 2009 horses mentioned above. They all made their moves at the same time after a wicked pace and all were cooked by the three-sixteenths pole, setting it up one of the so-called slow closers, Giacomo, at 50-1. No one knows what kind of pace we’ll have this year. It likely will not be as fast as in 2005, but you can be sure all those aforementioned horses will be moving together, making for a contentious cavalry charge approaching the quarter pole.
If Quality Road wins the Derby, here is a question: When was the last time, if ever, a father and son owned and bred different winners of the Kentucky Derby? Edward P. Evans owns and bred Quality Road. His father, Thomas Mellon Evans, owned and bred the 1981 Derby winner Pleasant Colony? If it has been done, it was a very long time ago.
When Dunkirk and Regal Ransom step on to the track for the Derby, take a close look at them and think of this: Dunkirk is four months older than Regal Ransom. Dunkirk was born on Jan. 23 and Regal Ransom was born on May 26 and won’t turn 3 until 10 days after the Preakness. That means that Regal Ransom was a mere baby in Dubai competing against several Southern Hemisphere 4-year-olds who were some 10 months older than him.
If Regal Ransom doesn’t run, then you can look next to Musket Man, who was born on May 10, followed by Pioneerof the Nile on May 5. Ironically, Pioneerof the Nile is one of the most experienced horses in the Derby with eight starts, while Dunkirk is the least experienced horse with only three starts.
Dunkirk and Musket Man have an interesting comparison. The more physically mature Dunkirk sold as a yearling for $3.7 million. Musket Man sold at the same sale for $15,000. In other words, you could have bought 246 Musket Mans for the price of one Dunkirk. Will the pauper wind up wealthier than the prince come Derby Day?
Do you remember the Fighting Sullivans? Well, meet the Scrapping Smart Strikes. When was the last time you saw four tougher, grittier sons from the same stallion than Papa Clem, English Channel, Curlin, and Fabulous Strike? Can you name the only American horse to win Japan Cup Dirt, who did it by battling it out tenaciously to score by a nose at odds of 48-1? It was Fleetstreet Dancer, a son of Smart Strike. Don’t mess with these guys.
Now that WinStar Farm’s Advice has won the Lexington Stakes and could be headed to Louisville, try to find the last time an owner had three horses in the Kentucky Derby with three different trainers?
On the lighter side, I must admit I have not been to the windows to collect on a Derby ticket since 2001, which is due in most part to poor betting practices and looking for a killing rather than focusing on the obvious. If I had gone with my observations in the mornings based on works and physical appearance it would have been a different story. I gave my “best work” endorsement in my final column to Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Monarchos (2001), Smarty Jones (2004, calling it the best Derby work I have ever seen), Barbaro (2006), and Street Sense (“by far” in 2007). And I didn’t do too badly with Denis of Cork in 2008. The 2003 and 2005 winners, Funny Cide and Giacomo, did not work at Churchill Downs.
As an example of my inability to turn these observations into cash, instead of going with the 6-1 Barbaro, I selected and bet on A.P. Warrior, despite his having no works at Churchill, and he wound up going off at only 14-1. Even worse was taking a pass on Smarty Jones (way too low for me at 4-1) and betting on Castledale, again with no works at Churchill, only because I loved the way he looked physically. I can’t even believe I am confessing to such stupidity after five years. To demonstrate what a “big-time” bettor I am, my $2 exacta of Monarchos and Invisible Ink ($1,229) in 2001 was the biggest ticket I have ever cashed.
Have I learned from my blunders? Probably not. I still cannot bet or pick short-priced horses in a 20-horse Derby field. So, the big-score sirens once again will lure me into another Monba-like wager and selection. But, hey, this is supposed to be all about fun, right? To me, fun and favorites do not co-mingle when it comes to betting the Derby, and there are so many mouth-watering overlays to choose from this year. Call it the Ralph Kramden get rich quick syndrome. When Ralph was a contestant on the show “The $99,000 Answer,” Alice implored him to just answer the $600 question and then call it quits. Ralph’s response: “Peanuts, what am I gonna do with peanuts?” Well, that’s me at the Derby, which is why I usually go home with nothing but the shells.
(This has been a public service announcement. Bet responsibly).