Kentucky Derby Trail: A New Road Ahead

Steve Haskin is an award-winning turf writer and senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse. In 1999, he co-authored "Baffert: Dirt Road to the Derby" with trainer Bob Baffert and also wrote "Racing's Holy Grail - The Epic Quest for the Kentucky Derby." This commentary is the first in a series of updates leading up to the 2005 Kentucky Derby on May 7.

Yes, it's only December, but what better way to fill the gap between the turkey and the tinsel than to start talking Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Although we have to wait until the Dec. 18 Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) to find out who will be named 2-year-old champion, we've seen enough to get a pretty good idea who the early stars will be in 2005.

Before discussing the Derby hopefuls gathering all over the country, it must be pointed out that next year's road to Louisville will be unlike anything we've ever seen, and there is no doubt that the times are indeed changing.

Believe it or not, there was a time when one of the major preps was the Derby Trial, which was run four days before the Derby and used by just about every Calumet Farm winner. Remember when the Blue Grass Stakes was run nine days before the Derby, and the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby two weeks out? And, most of all, remember when horses would come off the Florida Derby and run in the Wood or Blue Grass? Well, kiss those days goodbye. With racing comprised of just three separate entities – Magna Entertainment, Churchill Downs, and the New York Racing Association – all doing what's best for themselves, the Triple Crown trail will have trainers staying up nights trying to figure out a course of action.

The Florida Derby will be run on April 2, five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, meaning whoever runs in the race likely will not race again until the first Saturday in May, and it's been 48 years since a horse won the Derby coming off a layoff of longer than four weeks. The Wood Memorial, which used to be a natural progression from the Florida Derby, will now be run four weeks before the Derby instead of three, which leads one to ask, what big horses will it attract? The Gotham (gr. III), once a major prep, has not had any bearing on the Derby in quite a while, and in fact will have its purse lowered next year. The Lane's End Stakes (gr. II) at Turfway has been used as a prep in the past, but with that race now being run only two weeks before the Wood, you won't see anyone running in both races any longer. That leaves the March 12 Louisiana Derby (gr. II) as the only race from where the Wood Memorial can draw leading Derby contenders. There's also the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) run the following week, but you rarely see a major Derby contender running there.

NYRA says the new schedule will give horses more time to the Derby. But where does it say horses want more time? Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos, and Charismatic certainly didn't want more time. NYRA is attempting to fix something that wasn't broken.

So, other than the Louisiana Derby, Tampa Derby, and Gotham, where are the Wood horses going to come from? It is conceivable that a horse can run in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II) on March 5, then skip the Florida Derby and wait the extra week for the Wood to avoid being put in the position of having to win the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff. But NYRA shouldn't count on that happening too often, not with a $1-million purse for the Florida Derby.

The schedule change also means that horses coming out of the March 26 Lane's End will have only the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby to use as their final Derby prep, or they could wait for the Lexington Stakes (gr. II), run 13 days before the Derby. Or worse yet, wait for the Derby, which would really be bucking history.

The bottom line of this muddled situation is that you're now going to see the majority of Derby contenders coming into the big race off four- (Wood and Santa Anita Derby) and five- (Florida Derby) week layoffs, meaning their trainers had better know what they're doing if they hope to get them sharp enough and tough enough for a race as demanding as the Derby. Remember, in the past 20 years, the only three trainers to win the Derby off a four-week layoff are Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas, and Charlie Whittingham. That is not a coincidence. These are Hall of Fame and future Hall of Fame trainers who had the skills, gut instincts, and confidence to know how to get a horse to the Derby.

If Keeneland and Oaklawn decide eventually to adopt the same policy, then we're going to have mostly short horses for the Derby every year. Horsemen have become so conscious of Derby and Preakness winners failing in the Belmont that they no longer will look at the first Saturday in May as their main objective. It is not the Belmont, however, that has caused the downfall of so many horses seeking immortality. The Test of the Champion was designed as a coronation, but for a coronation you need a king. Racing's recent Triple Crown heroes only became heroes after winning the Derby. The year a horse is proclaimed a hero before winning the Derby (like Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat), that's when racing will have its 12th Triple Crown winner.

Of course, many people say horses are so much more fragile nowadays and can't stand up to the pressure of racing, so maybe this is all babble and the sport is indeed going through an unfortunate metamorphosis. Maybe one day a horse will win the Derby off three or four career starts and coming off a five-week layoff. But until some lightly raced late developer sweeps the Triple Crown, there is still hope that a throwback will come along and prove that the old days are not really the old days after all.

In the next column, later this week, I'll be discussing the Derby crop so far, looking at the recent Remsen Stakes (gr. II), Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II), and Laurel Futurity (gr. III) and the upcoming Hollywood Futurity, while continuing to list new prospects who are just now emerging on the scene.