Charmin and Sheets

On the morning of April 30, the Monday before this year’s Run for the Roses, something quite rare these days—a wonder to behold—took place in River City: the best-bred horse in the race, a son of Danzig named Hard Spun, smoked through five furlongs in :57 3/5, finishing the last quarter in :24 1/5 after peeling the paint on the rail with an opening three furlongs in :33 2/5.

My memory leaped back to some of the fastest five-furlong workouts I had ever seen in the final week at Churchill before the big dance: to Secretariat’s in :58 3/5 in 1973; to General Assembly’s :57 2/5 in 1979; and to Ferdinand’s :58 3/5 in 1986, with Charlie Whittingham tightening that final screw. Dinosaur that I am, I figured Hard Spun might be trying to tell us something, and was frankly puzzled when I began to hear critics saying that his trainer, Larry Jones, had blown all chance to win the race by working him too fast.

Even Jones wrung his hands over it. So he called trainer LeRoy Jolley, who had won two Derbys on his way to the Hall of Fame, and Lee told him about General Assembly’s fiery work before failing to beat the then-unbeatable “Bid.” Jolley also told him how Secretariat needed hard, fast works to bring him to the races at his very best: “When Secretariat broke track records in the morning, he broke world records when he raced.” Finally, Jones got a call from former jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, who told Jones how Risen Star won the Belmont by nearly 15 shortly after working three-eighths in :33 2/5.

“Good horses work fast,” Eddie told him.

Hard Spun’s work was the centerpiece of Derby week, and it served to throw into bas relief a larger question being debated these days: are young trainers babying their Kentucky Derby horses, bringing them to the race too “soft” to get a mile and a quarter, with starts too few and works too slow? Increasingly, Derby trainers seem to prefer having the fresh horse over the truly fit horse. This year, some candidates had only two starts in 2007. In this Charmin climate, with its squeezably soft training methods, no wonder Hard Spun’s dazzling work was greeted with such horror. 

Bob Baffert, who has won three Derbys since 1997, said this climate traces to horsemen’s growing reliance on the “Sheets,” the Bible in racing’s new religion of softies: “The Sheets guys say, ‘When you run a low number, give ’em some time so they don’t bounce. At least a month, better six weeks.’ That’s all you hear. The Sheets! The Sheets! The Sheets!”

The Sheets may be a useful handicapping tool in other venues, but they are clearly not the map showing the way to the roses. The Derby, unique and demanding, requires that a horse be absolutely dead fit to win it. D. Wayne Lukas, who has won four of them since 1988, said it is unwise to bring a “soft” horse to the Derby. “The Kentucky Derby is not the junior prom,” Lukas said. “You gotta go after it. The thing that has made Baffert and me so successful is that we didn’t pamper ’em to get here. There’s a fine line between doing too much and too little, but I don’t think you can come in here soft.”

The 133rd Derby really proved Lukas’ point. His former pupil, Todd Pletcher, is a leading “fresh horse” evangelist. His best colt, Circular Quay, had eight weeks off between his last race and the Derby. Of his five charges, Quay ran the best, but he finished sixth, beaten nearly 10 lengths. Pletcher is now 0-for-19 in the Derby. Is anyone really surprised that Hard Spun gave Street Sense his toughest fight? “Hard Spun proves my point,” Lukas said. “Larry Jones was criticized all week for working him too fast. But that hard, fast work was just what he needed.”

And Carl Nafzger was just what Street Sense needed—a smart, experienced horseman who knew exactly what he needed to do to win his second Derby. The colt had only two starts in 2007, but they were hard-fought races, with the last only three weeks before the Derby. And don’t forget: the colt was a well-seasoned 2-year-old champion who, like Hard Spun, had two brilliant bullet moves in April. None of the “Charmin Five” had a bullet move that month.

Forget fresh. Think tough. Chalk up one for the Old School.