Racing's Holy Grail--The Epic Quest for the Kentucky Derby--Chapter 2

Editor's Note: Steve Haskin is an award-winning turf writer and senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse. During his 29 years with the Daily Racing Form, Haskin became known for his insightful coverage of the Triple Crown races. Haskin won the Red Smith Award for Kentucky Derby writing in 1997, 1999, and 2000.and received the David Woods Award for best Preakness story in 1997. In 1999, he co-authored "Baffert: Dirt Road to the Derby" with trainer Bob Baffert and wrote the books, "Dr. Fager" and "John Henry" for Eclipse Press'"Thoroughbred Legends" series. In his latest book, "Racing's Holy Grail - The Epic Quest for the Kentucky Derby," Haskin takes readers behind the scenes and into the trenches as he examines what it takes to win the world's most famous horse race. He plumbs the secrets of successful trainers, the common pitfalls that hinder so many others, and the enigmatic nature of the race itself. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2:

Chapter 2 -- The Search Begins

Of the past thirty Kentucky Derby winners, twelve were homebreds; four sold at the prestigious Keeneland July yearling sale in Lexington, Kentucky; three sold at the Keeneland fall yearling sale; three were sold privately; two each were sold at the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale in Saratoga Springs, New York, Fasig-Tipton Kentucky yearling sale, and Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's two-year-old sale in Florida; and one each was sold at the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association's two-year-old sale and Tartan Farm dispersal. One Derby winner, Thunder Gulch, sold as a yearling, then was purchased privately during his two-year-old season. Another, Silver Charm, sold as a weanling and as a yearling, both at Ocala. Spend a Buck was plucked right out of his paddock as a yearling for $12,500. Strike the Gold was purchased privately as a two-year-old from financially troubled Calumet Farm, which had owned and bred eight Kentucky Derby winners.

As I stated earlier, a Kentucky Derby winner can come from anywhere and look like anything -- from grand-looking, near-flawless individuals like Fusaichi Pegasus, Secretariat, and Majestic Prince to crooked-legged horses like Canonero II and Real Quiet. The only thing that's worth remembering is that they're all equally beautiful with a blanket of roses draped across their shoulders.

So, how does one begin looking for a Derby horse when there is no standard model as a reference? Most horsemen aren't thinking Kentucky Derby when they look at yearlings. They're usually just looking for well-made, athletic horses with solid pedigrees. Once they've found them, they wait and watch.

Derby horses don't emerge overnight; they slowly take shape like a photograph floating in developer. One minute there is a blank piece of paper, and the next an image begins to appear. Some images become brilliant and sharp and full of action, while others are out of focus and must be discarded or put in the reject pile. A trainer scrutinizes every one of his young horses in the hope that, like the photographer, he'll see that one special award-winning shot develop before his eyes. If it does, the trainer, unlike the photographer, has to hope he doesn't screw it up. And there are a million ways to screw up a horse on the road to the Derby.

Remember, only fifteen to twenty horses out of approximately forty thousand Thoroughbreds born in a given year make it to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Before you begin having Derby dreams, remember that victory in the Run for the Roses often comes with a price. Of the Derby winners since 1980, Monarchos, Thunder Gulch, Grindstone, and Charismatic all were injured during their three-year-old campaigns. Grindstone never made it to the Preakness, and Charismatic never made it past the Belmont. Fusaichi Pegasus, Spend a Buck, Sunny's Halo, and Pleasant Colony never made it to their four-year-old campaigns. Swale died mysteriously after the Belmont. Go for Gin never won another stakes. Strike the Gold lost twelve consecutive races following the Derby before winning the Pimlico Special a year later. In 2001 the first six finishers in the Derby all were injured and either retired or were out for the year by late August.

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