Pyro tops the Derby graded earnings list with $1,020,000.<br><a target="blank" href="">Order This Photo</a>

Pyro tops the Derby graded earnings list with $1,020,000.
Order This Photo

Anne M. Eberhardt

Ky Derby Trail: Questions and Quandaries

Another Kentucky Derby is upon us, and most of the talk has been about the inconsistencies and slow speed figures of this year’s crop of 3-year-olds. Before we get into all the observations and analyses, and attempt to figure out this daffy Derby there is one point that must be addressed first.

There have been discussions recently in several places about the undeserving horses that get into the Derby, mainly because of graded earnings accumulated in 2-year-old stakes and lesser graded races with enormous purses. While we are in full agreement with that, there is a misconception that the Kentucky Derby of today is inferior to the ones years ago. The truth is the Derby is much more difficult to win now than it was back in racing’s glory days when horses actually did sweep the Triple Crown and legendary Hall of Famers graced the track on a regular basis.

Over the past four years, a total of 80 horses have run in the Kentucky Derby. Of those, 56 were graded stakes winners, eight were listed stakes winners, and 16 placed in graded stakes. That’s 80 starters and 80 stakes horses.

Now let’s go back to the years between 1969 and 1972 when no one had to qualify to run in the Derby. Just imagine the following being the case today and the outcry it would cause. During the above mentioned four years, the following horses ran in the Kentucky Derby: Royal Leverage, whose only win in 10 career starts was for a $10,000 claiming tag; Big Brown Bear, whose only victory in 18 career starts was in a $15,000 claiming race; Majestic Needle, winner of one allowance race and a maiden special weight race in 23 career starts, who was coming off a 26-length defeat in the Blue Grass Stakes; Saigon Warrior, whose only victory in 17 career starts was in a six-furlong maiden race at Oaklawn Park; Fourulla, a maiden in four career starts; Pacallo, who broke his maiden in a $10,000 claiming race in Puerto Rico, and in his only race in America was beaten 11 lengths in a seven-furlong allowance race; Rae Jet, winner of two of 23 starts, who ran in an eight-horse Derby field against the likes of Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, Top Knight, and Dike after getting beat in a $20,000 claiming race at six furlongs and finishing 17 lengths back in the Derby Trial; and Our Trade Winds, who was beaten 17 lengths in the Derby Trial, was eased in the Blue Grass Stakes, and was beaten 11 lengths in the Arkansas Derby.

So, as memorable as those years were, just consider the mediocrity (the connections as much as the horses) that was allowed to infiltrate the Kentucky Derby. Sort of makes you appreciate the horses that run in today’s Derby a little more and how many stakes-caliber horses you have to beat to wear the blanket of roses. It’s true that there are many more stakes today, but back then there were about a half-dozen or so top quality horses to beat each year, with more than half the field made up of horses that didn’t belong in a cheap stakes, never mind the Kentucky Derby.   

Now, on to this year’s Run for the Roses, which has to be the most baffling in years. What makes it so hard to decipher is the inconsistency of the 3-year-olds as a whole, as well as the number of horses who have run only twice this year and the number who are unknown on the dirt.

You have nine graded stakes winners in 2008, including the winners of the grade I Wood Memorial and Toyota Blue Grass and grade II Louisiana Derby, Fountain of Youth Stakes, and Lane’s End Stakes, who have also finished fifth or worse in a graded stakes this year. Five of those finished ninth or worse. That is unheard of. And that’s not including last year’s champion 2-year-old War Pass, who finished last in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) at 1-20, and will miss the Derby.

You also have five horses (depending on what they do with Behindatthebar) who either have never run on dirt or have never finished in the money on dirt. Those include the first two finishers of the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), the Lane’s End winner, Coolmore Lexington (gr. II) winner, and the Blue Grass runner-up.

And finally, in the inexperience category, trying to win the Derby off only two starts this year are the winners of the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, and Illinois Derby, as well as the third-place finisher of the Wood Memorial and Fountain of Youth Stakes.

With so many loose puzzle pieces to have to fit together, it’s no wonder that this year’s Derby, as competitive as it might be (unless Big Brown is the super freak some think he is), is nothing more than a total guess, with normal handicapping tools for the most part inapplicable.

Let’s start with the plusses and minuses of the top 10 Derby hopefuls in order of graded earnings. The remainder will be listed Thursday.

PyroMinuses: Coming off a dreadful performance in the Blue Grass, and horses just don’t rebound off that bad an effort in the Derby. But we will take into consideration the Polytrack-has-put-in-a-new-set-of-rules factor and not hold that race against him too much. Plusses: He’s a powerful closer with a dynamite knockout punch and he has excellent 2-year-old form and speed figures last year good enough to win the Derby. He’s more than capable of bouncing back big-time.

Tale of EkatiMinuses: He’s had only two starts this year, with one of them being a poor effort, so his foundation is questionable. Wood Memorial final time and final three-eighths were as slow as it gets. Prado took off him to ride a horse who ran awful in his only dirt start. Plusses: Classy 2-year-old, ton of natural ability, and should improve off the Wood. His Futurity (gr. II) score was as impressive a performance by a 2-year-old as we saw last year. He was a standout in the paddock before the Wood Memorial, and we really don’t know what to make of that race in general. Yes, they came home very slow, but you have to give him a lot of credit for running his second quarter in :22 4/5 over that dead track and going on to win.

Colonel JohnMinuses: Another with only two starts this year, and he’s never run on dirt. Because of his long stride, it takes him a while to kick into gear and that could cause him to lose his position, as was the case in the Santa Anita Derby. And he needs to run a straighter course in the stretch. Plusses: His turn of foot once he does level off is explosive, as we also witnessed in the Santa Anita Derby when he pounced on Bob Black Jack in the blink of an eye. He’s bred to run long, and his breeding and stride suggest he’ll have no problem handling the dirt; he may even improve over it. He looks to be the consummate pro and has the perfect temperament for the Derby. He also possesses a good deal of natural speed if he needs to use it. He’s a powerful, handsome colt who won’t be intimidated.

GayegoMinuses: His sire was a sprinter who has sired mostly sprinters and milers, and he’ll have to deal with a contentious pace and a number of brilliant, classy speed horses, unlike the Arkansas Derby in which he had a perfect trip stalking longshot Tres Borrachos. Plusses: His dam is inbred to the great class and stamina influence Ribot, which likely is the major reason he’s outrun his pedigree on his sire’s side; also inbred to Count Fleet and Bold Ruler, so he’s geared for long-distance speed. He’s consistent, can give you multiple moves, and seems to be handling each stretch-out with no problem.

Big BrownMinuses: Very little experience and seasoning, and bucking history on several fronts. He’ll get tested on or near the pace for the first time in his career. He’s had two quarter cracks and wears glue-on shoes. His sire was a sprinter who has sired sprinters. Plusses: He’s done things in three races horses just aren’t supposed to do. His speed figures are light years above any of the others. He’s been called a freak by knowledgeable horsemen. Genetics expert claims he has an extraordinary heart, a product of his broodmare sire Nureyev. He’s inbred to Damascus and Round Table. Many think of him as a speed horse, but he rates kindly on or off the race.

Z HumorMinuses: Only victory since maiden score in career debut was a dead-heat win in the Delta Jackpot (gr. III) in December. More steady than flashy, and hasn’t done anything to make him stand out. He’s a one-paced grinding type of horse who lacks that big closing punch. Plusses:  He’s on a steady upward movement speed-wise and performance-wise and could be ready to run the race of his life. Whether that’s good enough is another matter, but if you’re looking for a bomb in the 50-1 and higher range, he could run a lot better than people think. He has solid 2-year-old form and a good foundation under him and could grind his way into a placing.

MonbaMinuses: Not only has he made only two starts this year, but one was a complete fiasco in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong, leaving him a physical mess after the race. Many knock his low Beyer fig in the Blue Grass and feel his victory was aided by Polytrack. Like Tale of Ekati, Prado went off him after his Blue Grass win to ride a horse who is unproven on dirt. Plusses: Most unusual horse to have ranked No. 1 on Derby Dozen, but in a crazy year like this, there is enough to like. He has the ability to lay close to the pace and still come home in fast fractions. He encountered adversity in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) over a foreign surface, dropping way out of contention after a troubled start only to put in a furious stretch run to finish a close fourth, a length behind runner-up Colonel John. He won the Blue Grass off a two-month layoff after a throw-out race and only four half-mile breezes, suggesting there an even bigger effort about to come. He’s bred to run long, he has a win at Churchill Downs, he’s never run in a race with less than 12 horses, and he’s run well over dirt, Polytrack, and Cushion Track.

Court VisionMinuses: He seems to be the horse many fans and bettors love to hate, claiming he’s nothing more than a slow plodder. He’s another with only two starts this year, and in the Wood Memorial he couldn’t take advantage of his own rabbit killing off War Pass. Plusses: He has a rock solid 2-year-old foundation, is a graded stakes winner at Churchill Downs, and is a relentless closer who has twice turned certain defeat into victory. He is bred to get the mile and a quarter and he has Garrett Gomez, who chose him over Colonel John. Perhaps most important, after a series of slow breezes at Payson Park all winter and running accordingly, he woke up immediately after arriving at Churchill Downs, turning in a bullet half-mile breeze in :46 1/5 with the addition of blinkers. When a horse improves that dramatically at Churchill it’s the kind of sign you’re looking for and suggests he’s blossoming at the right time and sitting on a peak effort. He and Monba were our original No. 1 and 2 picks, respectively, back in January and we can’t desert them now.

Z FortuneMinuses: He’s suffered three straight defeats after winning his first three career starts. Trainer Steve Asmussen thought he couldn’t lose the Rebel Stakes, but ran an uninspired fifth at 3-5, beaten nearly 10 lengths. He appeared to have the Arkansas Derby won, but hung in the final 100 yards. Female family is a bit iffy in the stamina department. Plusses: His second in the Arkansas Derby was a good wake-up race and was very similar to the performances of a number of Kentucky Derby winners who were second in their final Derby prep, especially Grindstone and Lil E. Tee in this same race. He broke from a bad post (11) in the Arkansas Derby and was hung four-wide on both turns, yet still earned a 102 Beyer figure and solid speed sheets numbers. Big, powerful colt with a stride to match.


To read Steve Haskin's personal accounts of some of racing's most thrilling moments, check out his new book, Tales from the Triple Crown.