Ky. Derby Trail: Flashback to Greatness

What do the following horses have in common? Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Alydar, Damascus, Buckpasser, Easy Goer, Riva Ridge, Holy Bull, Spend a Buck, and Swale?


All of them, despite having run at a mile or longer as a 2-year-old, made their 3-year-old debut going seven furlongs or shorter.


In recent years, trainers, for whatever reason, are reluctant to drop a horse back in distance for his 3-year-old debut. Now you see races like the Hutcheson Stakes and Bay Shore Stakes  dominated by sprinters. You rarely see a top 2-year-old make his first start at 3 in a sprint of any kind, with many trainers rushing them into 1 1/8-mile races, as they do with horses who have never even been two turns.


Read the full column here.


Leave a Comment:


This is an exceptionally fascinating article. So when did trainers start thinking that three-year-olds should start the season in routes instead of sprints?

I'm excited to hear that Stardom Bound is coming along well. I was there when she destroyed the field in the Oak Leaf; her turn of foot is devastating and if she can do that just as well or even better on dirt, all the better. I hope she proves that she can run with the boys.

22 Jan 2009 5:21 PM
fast eddie

i would guess the reason that trainers dont drop their big horses back to shorter distances to begin their 3 yr old campaign is tied to the amount of racing a horse is limited to these days.  Trainers want to make sure their horses can make the classic distance so they have to start them at over a mile.  Modern day trainers just don't race their 3yr olds 5 times before May unfortunately.

22 Jan 2009 5:25 PM

While I find a lot to agree with here Steve the one thing I would debate is grouping Smarty Jones in with those horses that were "cooked" by the Belmont. In fact the numbers would say to the contrary. Did he lose? Yeah. Was he the best horse? Yeah. Did he lose because he was cooked? Running a mile and 1/4 that would have won 126 out of 130 Derbys is a lot of things, but cooked isn't one of them. There are a lot of reasons one could speculate as to why he lost that day, but I don't see how anyone could blame it on the prep schedule.

22 Jan 2009 5:41 PM
Craig Johnson (GE)

This is a good trend.  Fast horses run fast both short and long.  Sunday Silence ran 6.5 in 1:15 and change.   Best Pal, Silver Charm Etc.  All had strong sprint records.  Too many route races just make slow, hurt horses.

22 Jan 2009 5:44 PM
Abbie Knowles

Another  terrific column and great reading plus it brings back some wonderful memoeries!  Seattle Slew was certainly a rarity in that he could practically outsprint the sprinters and outstay the stayers! His narrow defeats at the hooves of Exceller in the then mile and a half, Jockey Club Gold Cup, sounds to have been one of his greatest ever races!  He was certainly well capable of winning over 7furlongs and probably could have won over shorter but he was rare, very special and very underrated it seems as the general concensus of opinion does not appear to rate him that highly!!  Most mentioned would not have lived with him at any distance!  He slammed Affirmed twice yet Affirmed got the Horse of the Year award which I never understood?  I doubt Secretariat would have beaten him; which is probably regarded as heresy but there you go!  Certainly Seattle Slew has proved the better stallion of the two!!!!

As for this year, well it is great that Stardom Bound is coming on so well and i can hardly wait to see her in action again, or read about the race if ATR do not televise it!  She looked very special indeed as a 2 year old and hope she will prove it at 3 and maybe 4?

God Bless

Best wishes


22 Jan 2009 7:37 PM
Steve Haskin

Sam, perhaps cooked was too strong a word. He wasn't as ratable as he was in the Derby and Preakness and he may have backed up a bit, but you're right. I wouldn't say he was cooked. In fact I think I'll go change it. Thanks.

22 Jan 2009 8:18 PM



22 Jan 2009 9:24 PM
Karen in Indiana

Hi, Steve. Maybe this is a dumb question. I'm reading a book on Man O'War right now and it amazes me how much the horses then were raced. It wasn't unusual for them to race them with just a few days rest in between. One of the trainers said he had to push his horse to keep him from getting fat so he may as well do it in a race. It does seem like they pushed them too hard back then, but why are so many trainers only running the horses now every 6 to 8 weeks? Is it because they have so many horses under them that it's the trainer's schedule that limits how often they run?

22 Jan 2009 10:35 PM
Karen in Indiana


The book says they didn't run Man O'War in the Kentucky Derby because they thought it was too early in the season for a 3 yr. old to be going that distance. And look how he turned out!

22 Jan 2009 10:39 PM

I see we remember the personal favorites..Buckpasser and Damascus

23 Jan 2009 9:14 AM

Great column!The first image that come to mind is the resetting of a spring. After being successfully stretched  in the 2 year old season, now reset, gaining strength and tension in readiness for the geatest 3 year old series. Also interesting in this context is the research showing greater resiliency of muscle, as well as density and strength of bone in direct proportion to the amount of early work.  It seems possible that that one key to succes is alternating the intensity of effort, ie, stretching and then pulling back, then stretching again.  Maybe in our attempts to pace and save our young horses we are inadvertently creating a weaker horse?  Citation winning 2 miles  between the Preakness and the Belmont fits into the concept of alternating intensity and type of effort.   Instead of disregarding as a freak event with an atypical horse, we might consider that pattern as a successful example of finetuning and targeting fitness, recovery and readiness to go again.

Thanks again for a great article Steve!

23 Jan 2009 9:36 AM


I sure don't wish to get into telling trainers their job, however I would hope many modern conditioners read your article. Some of the greatest horsemen of all time wrote the book - the Jones boys, Stephens, Whitingham, Whiteley, VanBerg, Berrera etc.on preparing for a three year old campaign. Maybe it's time for the computer generation trainers that so heavily rely on 30 to 45 days between starts, sheets and figures to determine a horses schedule to pick up a few of the "Old School" methods and incorporate them into the fantastic modern technology at their disposal today.

Your point that as a two year old they showed distance was not a concern, only maturity and a steady slow progression need be applied to bring them into the three year old season. With the early workout regimen accomplished most of these trainers would prep with a sprint to kickoff the road to the Classics.

It would seem that those lessons are lost on a majority of today's conditioners who rely on medication to take the place of foundation. Don't get me wrong, the individual horse points the direction to take, and there are still a number of excellent old school horsemen still working today and most would certainly agree with your post.

23 Jan 2009 9:48 AM

I'm glad to see Barclay Tagg is going this route with Hello Broadway, as I'm real high on this colt!

23 Jan 2009 10:18 AM

ABBIE KNOWLES,  I agree that Seattle Slew probably is one of the greatest of all time.  I saw every one of his races, absolutely love him.  The thing is that when Secretariat felt like running there was NO HORSE, and I emphasize, NO HORSE ANYWHERE that could beat him,  not even Slew I'm afraid.  Big Red was a phenomenon.  This world will NEVER see another!

23 Jan 2009 11:20 AM
Terry Wallace


Another recent 3yo of note to start off his season was Afleet Alex.  He kicked off his season in the Mountain Valley at Oaklawn, coming from last to overhaul a pretty nice sprinter from Steve Asmussen's barn, named Razor. Afleet Alex got the six furlongs in 1:09.2 and was prepped for the Rebel.  But he developed a virus and ran last in the Rebel.

Even though most of the horsemen around here wondered about Tim Ritchey's training, he never doubted his colt and Afleet Alex easily won the Arkansas Derby and continued through the remarkable Triple Crown series.

Some of us think Afleet Alex may be the most talented horse to ever run at Oaklawn.

I can't wait to see his babies.

23 Jan 2009 11:36 AM

Abbie Knowles:

Andrew Beyers calculated Secretariat's Triple Crown races - especially his Belmont - and he noted that "even a champion like Seattle Slew would have been left 12 lengths back" in his wake.

It's great to have your favorites - and Slew doesn't need to take a back seat to anyone as far as heart and greatness - but Secretariat was on another level - he literally rewrote the standard for what a race horse should be.  

We haven't even been close yet.

23 Jan 2009 1:04 PM

It is remarkable how every year there is a new training regimen/strategy to be analyzed on the way to the Kentucky Derby.  Barbaro, Curlin, Big Brown...all did things in a new way...

What about Holy Bull? Was he cooked on Derby day?  Afleet Alex?  

I'm not so sure that I would write off the west coast horses based on last year's results alone...especially The Pamplemousse...he looks to have some real potential.

23 Jan 2009 3:53 PM
Steve Haskin

Hi Terry, thanks for adding Alex to the list. I was going back farther, but he sure fits the bill and was just getting good in the Belmont. Who knows what he would have accomplished. Tim Ritchey did a great job with him.

Good luck with the meet. The Southwest looks awesome. So far, Poltergeist and Flat Out both looked terrific.

23 Jan 2009 4:51 PM
Steve Haskin

Justine, many trainers that started the new trend simply didn't know their horses and what they needed to get sharp, mentally and physically. Everything is rush, rush, rush. Get them a distance right away.

Mike, Majormotionpicture had been a big buzz horse and there were several interested parties, but he obviously has some issues and hasn't been doing much lately.

Karen, yes, many trainers have too many horses, and most of them are too overprotective. They treat their horses like fine glass, afraid they're going to break. You can baby them if you only want to get to the Derby, but you have to toughen them and be aggressive if you want to win it.  

23 Jan 2009 4:58 PM
Steve Haskin

Thanks mg, this wasn't meant to tell trainers what to do, just to state the facts and history and let them decide whats best for their horse.

Wilson, I don't think anyone is writing off the California horses based on last year. It's too early to write any group of horses off. I can see being apprehensive about the ones who will not race on dirt before the Derby.

23 Jan 2009 5:02 PM

Thanks for the response, Steve. Do you think these new trainers simply need time to understand exactly what kinds of races their horses need in order to get to the starting gate the first Saturday in May (and beyond)?

And as my "home court" is Santa Anita Park I'd hate to see anyone write off our horses. We're all apprehensive about their first start on dirt in a 20-horse field.

23 Jan 2009 6:12 PM

I endorse Whatever's response to Abbie Knowles and wish to add that Secretariat's prowess in the breeding shed is arguably greater than Seattle Slew's through his daughters Terlingua (dam of Storm Cat),  Weekend Surprise (dam of AP Indy)and Lady Winborne (dam of Lost Soldier) to name a few.  Secretariat has an awesome broodmare sire of quality sires.  His offsprings didn't perform as well on the track as Seattle Slew, admittedly but thats why we can have an argument.

23 Jan 2009 7:34 PM
Abbie Knowles

We don't need  to have an argument jus agree to differ.  Seattle Slew was a pretty good broodmare sire too and his stallion sons and their sons are way better than Secretariat's and that trend looks set to continue with the likes of Tapit and Sky Mesa etc around.

Ok maybe as a racehorse Secretariat's performance in The Belmont was better than anything Slew achieved but I reckon Slew had more courage!  Vis a Vis his epic if slightly unavailing fightback against Exceller in the Jockey Club Cup when he went off like a rocket but still clawed his way back to nearly get back in front on the line!  Life was not easy for Seattle Slew healthwise either with several brushes with death so his toughness was something else too! For me he is better looking than Big Red but then we are all entitled to our opinions!!!!!  i am, and always have been ever since i saw a photo of Seattle Slew as a 2 y o in Pacemaker in 1976, one of his biggest fans!  

God Bless

Best wishes


24 Jan 2009 7:06 AM
russell maiers

Super article Steve, and great comments. Always nice to hear about my favorite modern horse Afleet Alex. I wished he would have walked out in the Derby, then circled them all. Never saw a race where the horse started and slowed so many times being banged and slammed all the way and still almost pulled it off. Seemed like not many noticed as I got such nice odds on Afleet in the Preakness. Only horse race where I won some pretty good money, and saw the show of shows around the last turn.

24 Jan 2009 11:15 AM
Steve Haskin

Russell, I'll tell you something about Alex's Derby not many people know about, if any. He came out of the race with a lung infection -- 3 on a scale of 5. The reason they didnt say anything was because he had a lung infection after the Rebel, in which he was last, and they didnt want to sound like they were making the same excuses for him. Remember they got criticized after the Rebel for bringing him back in the Arkansas Derby. On his day, those horses were not in the same league as him. He should have won the Derby for fun. And he still might have had Jeremy Rose not whipped him continuously with a big lead in the Arkansas Derby. If he had wrapped up on him like he should have, and saved something instead of pushing him to win by 8 lengths, I really think he would have won the Derby anyway. He was a much better horse than people think.

24 Jan 2009 5:30 PM
russell maiers

Steve, Wow, I knew about the Rebel, I was one who did not know about the infection during the Derby or showing up after. Thanks for the information! I still enjoy watching his Belmont. Unbelievable cruising speed before being asked. Then, well you know. I have to agree about the Arkansas analysis, I just didn't understand the finish. I will have to gather my thoughts on the new information. I am astounded!

24 Jan 2009 7:58 PM
Matthew W

Bid started his four year old season at 7 fur too...having previously run at 1 1/2 mi on dirt, he was a bit slow to settle...then he ran lights out in last 1/8...7 fur is the perfect tuneup for a distance horse...really don't know why they don't go that way anymore....

24 Jan 2009 10:25 PM

Free House, although not a winner of a Triple Crown race (3rd Derby + Belmont, 2nd Preakness) had won the 8.5 furlong Norfolk Stakes at 2 before debuting at 3 in the 7 furlong San Vicente.  Free House ran 2nd in the San Vicente, beaten by another horse making his seasonal debut, Silver Charm.  Silver Charm doesn't fit your criteria, given that he didn't run 2 turns at 2, but he had won the Del Mar Futurity the year before.  Baffert choose to bring him up to the Derby starting with a 7 furlong race before stretching him out to 8.5 and then 9 furlongs.   Both Silver Charm and Free House would go on to have outstanding Triple Crown campaigns and continue to win big races until the age of 5.

As for Afleet Alex, I would take him over any other 3 year old to have raced this decade, with the possible exception of Point Given.  I really think that, with his tactical speed and insane acceleration, he was better than Smarty, Barbaro, Bernardini, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Empire Maker, Street Sense, and Big Brown. I have a little trouble comparing him to Tiznow and Curlin because those two reached their peak at the end of the year while Alex didn't get to race after June.

25 Jan 2009 1:32 AM

Abbie K.You are right to say Seattle Slew was a great horse. The 70's brought us many great ones in fact I think one of the best decades of racing horses.But I will tell you one thing Secretariat was one of the most beautiful horses ever that lived on this earth! I have pictures of him in the pastures and you can see every muscle in his legs,shoulders and every part of his body beautiful red mane and tail flowing as he run. He knew he was a beauty and everyone else with good vision could see that to.The 70's gave us 3 triple crown winners and I loved them all.

25 Jan 2009 7:14 PM
Matthew W

It took him a lot of races to finally put it all together, but Tiznow's last four races as a three year old were HUGE---three were vs older the other was his Super Derby romp in fast time! His Big Cap at four was a tour'de'force---he went wrong...came back in Fall...and up against it he beat them all again....that was a tough, GOOD horse...

26 Jan 2009 3:57 AM
Matthew W

The thing is you can't compare Seattle Slew to Secretariat as a racehorse....AND you can't compare Secretariat to Seattle Slew as a sire! I think in a best of seven 'Bid sweeps Slew and takes Big Red 4-2.....

26 Jan 2009 4:05 AM

Really great food for thought, Steve.  Your take on things just always makes such good sense.  Makes you wonder why anyone could look at it any differently.  Of course, when you start training after the winter break, it's only common sense to start out shorter and build up.  I'd love it if you would keep us up to date on which trainers are doing what - a post season comparison would be really fascinating.  As always, you have opened my eyes - thank you.

26 Jan 2009 8:47 AM

That is something I did not know about AA, thanks Steve. PS I SO AGREE about JR in Arkansas Derby.

There's always a story to tell about the greatest of races & horses...I remember Sham...I really liked that horse, one of only 3 to run the Kentucky Derby in under 2 minutes...if it had not been for him would Secretariat have been pushed to run as he did that day? It's not widely known that Sham had ripped two teeth out of his mouth in the starting gate, and bled the whole race. Even still, he finished with a time of 1:59 4/5.

I will never forget that Belmont as I watched LP whip Sham to the point I could not watch anymore and I actually did not watch Secretariat win until just a couple of years ago, I could not bear to see a champion like Sham broken like that in a race no horse could have run like Secretariat did that day.

He never raced again due to a hairline fracture discovered in July.

Secretariats heart has been estimated to weigh 22 lbs, considered largest ever...Sham's was estimated to be 18 lbs, one of the largest, if not second only to Secretariat...again.

26 Jan 2009 3:08 PM

It wasn't just the Arkansas Derby.  These comments sent me back to U-tube to enjoy AA's Preakness and Belmont victories.  There was no reason (relative to the race. . .) for AA to take the punishment he did done the stretch.


What a horse!

26 Jan 2009 4:31 PM
mike williams

These are all great horses, but Secretariat will always be the greatest.Why? He won at every distance,and was unbeatable on turf.The crowning achievement of his career was winning the Canadian International Championship under Eddie Maple on the Marshall turf course, turned into a blog, at 1 5/8 miles. He overcame a huge lead set by Kennedy Road and won going away.This race was a test of stamina and endurance and he surpassed all expectations.None of the other champions mentioned accomplished this.

26 Jan 2009 5:47 PM
2 time valley player of the year

Triple crown winner Citation ran 20 times at 3 and won 19 races and finished second the other race. These trainers treat the horses nowadays as babies wusses, check the amount of races  all past triple crown winners had  and you'll see they all raced a lot not like the phony routines that the trainers are using now.See the amount of time off between races Citation had his banner year.Past champions had endurance and experience!

26 Jan 2009 6:32 PM
Billy D.

In response to "Whatever," I guess he never saw the '73 running of the Woodward, where Big Red had no excuse. Big Red also lost five times to 'Slew's' three, albeit one was a disqualification (Champagne) and in two races he ran sick or injured. Even Big Red didn't win the TC undefeated. Which leads me to reason how good Exceller must've been! I still think Exceller got robbed out of an Eclipse award in '78.

27 Jan 2009 8:26 PM



27 Jan 2009 9:25 PM

Wasn't the Woodward the race that Riva Ridge was suppose to run in?  And they dropped Secretariat in instead at the last minute because the track was sloppy (RR didn't do mud)?  If I remember correctly, Secretariat wasn't "up" for the race (besides the last minute issue) for another reason.  Mr. Haskin had a blog about this a while back.  I seem to remember that Prove Out was a pretty good horse. . .

27 Jan 2009 10:24 PM
2 time valley player of the year

reply to Mike  R. Citation's record that 3 yr old season shows what a great horse he was and so physically fit because of the way he was trained, the point I was making is that the trainers in the past had the horses better prepared then those of today. 4 time horse of the year  Kelso ran 64 times in his career and as a handicapper carried up to 142 lbs, do you think any of these trainers would ever run a horse with those weights , no they complain and scratch out if a horse is assigned anything over 127 lbs.Dr Fager set [at that time] the world record for a mile carrying 135 lbs!!!.Today's horses are too soft because of the training style .Are you old enough to remember the likes of Dr Fager ,John Henry, Damascus, Buckpasser who ran often and won.They were prepared not pampered!

28 Jan 2009 2:12 PM
2 time valley player of the year

I stand corrected,Kelso was 5 time horse of the year from 1960-1964,ran 63 times in his career, won 39 races in the money 84% of the time carried 130 lbs 24 times, won 13 nobody would race against him unless they had a big weight advantage, won 5 consecutive jockey gold cups,3 consecutive woodwards, 3 whitney's and new york's handicapping triple crown carrying over 130 lbs each race.won 3 yr old horse of the year even though he didn't start his 3 year campaign until after the belmont won 8 of 9 stakes.Carl Hanford was his trianer thru his career -he had this horse prepared and in top racing form -do you think he knew something about training that today's trainers don't? As I said before today's horses are too soft!

28 Jan 2009 2:52 PM
Monica V

2 Time Valley Player of the Year,

This is my opinion, right or wrong.

With each passing decade, the breed gets a little more fragile, partly because we breed for speed and because the gene pool is too small.  All thoroughbreds are descended from only 3 stallions so for over 200 years that's it. The breed certainly hasn't gotten stronger.  They are not running any faster and we have a lot of breakdowns that could be attributed to other reasons but we just don't have the "iron horses" we used to have.

28 Jan 2009 3:30 PM

To Monica:

I couldn't have said it better. Today's racehorse simply and I repeat simply cannot withstand an overload race schedule. Individuals' on this blog that state racehorses are too soft obviously doesn't connect the dots. Horses aren't machines,they are flesh and bone! I own three that race in Fla. as a hobby,not a source of income and I can tell you I make a very high priority to ensure they are lightly raced,five or six races a year,tops. You make a good point.

28 Jan 2009 4:55 PM

Hey Monica V how are you girl? Nice to hear from you. I agree with you that the gene pool is to small. we don't support outcrosses like we should.

28 Jan 2009 4:56 PM
Abbie Knowles

The saddest thing about Exceller was not that he did not get the 1978 Eclipse award but that he ended up in a slaughterhouse. How cruel an end is that for such a great champion?  More needs to be done to stop this terrible thing from happening and Fairmount's lead should be followed!!!!!!

Anyone read Richard Stone Reeves and Patrick Robinson's book Decade of Champion's?  Exceller is movingly depicted in that, as are all the greats of the 70's featured.  A truly awesome book!  Fabulous paintings by a master and beautifully written!  One of my treasures!

God Bless

Best wishes


28 Jan 2009 8:36 PM

Back to Citation for a jif, enroute to his Triple Crown sweep, he stopped off and won the Jersey Derby (the Jersey Stake then I think) at Garden State between the Preakness and Belmont.

28 Jan 2009 8:39 PM
Matthew W

I think Citation beat the champion older horse in Feb of his 3yo year!

29 Jan 2009 4:41 AM
Bay Meadows

Steve, I just read your Derby Dozen Preview where you listed 70 horses and 4 maidens to watch.  I was very surprised that Taqarub was not mentioned.  Do you have any thoughts on him?  Three for three lifetime and the Inner Track record at Aqueduct is not to shabby. I realize there may have been questionable competition, but he has blown them away when asked.

29 Jan 2009 5:56 PM

The "Slewster" was in my humble opinion, the greatest of all time. Bar nobody. & to Matthew W. above, How could the 'Bid sweep the Slew, when Affirmed whooped the Bid, & the "Slew" demolished Affirmed 2 X's ? If the "Slew" hadn't become deathly ill, I'm afraid he would have been not only, the only undefeated TC winner of all time, but defeated never.

11 Aug 2009 7:56 PM

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