Eventually, all the so-called rules trainers must follow to win America’s most cherished race will be broken.
Last year, Barbaro broke the “layoff” rule, winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) despite coming into the race with five weeks of rest since his previous start. No horse since Needles in 1956 had won the Derby with a five-week layoff (Needles, in fact, was off six weeks). Michael Matz, Barbaro’s trainer, was consistently peppered with questions about his plans for the Dynaformer colt throughout the winter and spring because he was going against the flow of history. The ease of Barbaro’s victory should have ended that line of questioning for all time.
A few years earlier, Funny Cide broke the “gelding” rule when he won the 2003 renewal of the Kentucky Derby. The son of Distorted Humor became the first gelded winner since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Why had it been so long? Circumstances. There just haven’t been that many geldings competing, though there were a few notable exceptions that grabbed the public’s attention.
This year brings us to a couple of tried and tested chapters from the unwritten trainers’ manual: the “two-prep” and “unraced juvenile” rules.
The former dictum says a horse can’t win the Derby without having at least three prep races in the same calendar year. The latter states no horse can win the Kentucky Derby unless he or she raced as a 2-year-old.
The first rule is based on the fact no horse has won the Kentucky Derby with only two prep races on his calendar since Sunny’s Halo in 1983. You have to go back to 1947 and Jet Pilot to find the previous two-prep winner of the Kentucky Derby.
That’s likely a circumstantial issue as well. All horses raced more frequently in the past than they do today, and there were not that many proven runners trying to win the Kentucky Derby with just a pair of prep races.
The trend, which goes hand in hand with the lengthening of time between races, has been to race any horse—not just a Derby contender—fewer times.
This isn’t the only sport, incidentally, where trends have been reversed.
In baseball, it wasn’t that long ago that a good starting pitcher would register 20 or more complete games a year. Today, with greater emphasis on relief pitching, some starters will go an entire year without completing a game. Does that mean today’s pitchers aren’t as talented as pitchers from a previous era? Hardly. They are just handled differently by their managers, the way horses are handled differently these days by their connections.
Two top Derby prospects, 2-year-old champion Street Sense and Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) winner Great Hunter, will test the two-prep rule, each of them having made only a pair of starts this year after having relatively busy 2-year-old campaigns.
The unraced juvenile rule may be the only one that actually makes any sense. No Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 was unraced as a 2-year-old, though a number of very good horses that didn’t begin racing until 3 have tried. Arkansas Derby (gr. II) winner Curlin will be the latest hoping to snap that string.
The Derby is the most demanding test any horse will have had at this stage of his career. The enormous crowd creates a powder-keg atmosphere, and the mile and a quarter distance of the Derby is physically challenging to any horse, but particularly to a lightly raced one. Experience with racing over a longer period of time might help, in some small way, to prepare a horse for this enormous test.
Even this most established Derby rule will fall. It’s only a matter of time.