The Derby trail is a perilous one, with all who travel on it exposed to its many obstacles and heartaches. It is where the strong are rewarded and the weak are gobbled up and spit out.
The trail is laid out to provide all travelers with numerous stopping off points along the way – each one being an opportunity to rev up the engines and continue moving forward in an effort to reach Churchill Downs in top condition and then peak on the first Saturday in May.
But there is no doubt something has changed over the years. The trail has been plagued by a disease that continues to spread each year and can derail even the most talented trainers and their steeds. It is called fear. Not fear as in one’s character, but the deep-rooted fear of losing.
What makes this malady so baffling is that the Derby trail is designed in good part to use defeat as a positive. In fact, only seven of the last 20 Derby winners won their previous start and only five of the 20 had won their previous two starts. So, 15 of the last 20 Derby winners suffered at least one defeat in their final two preps.
Look how much was learned as a result of Hansen’s defeat in the Holy Bull. Had the champ won that race and remained undefeated, do you think trainer Mike Maker would have tinkered so much with him, especially making two significant equipment changes? Now they have a horse who not only can rate, but rate off the pace.
Gut-wrenching final prep defeats no doubt helped toughen Super Saver, Street Sense, Funny Cide, Silver Charm, Grindstone, and Lil E. Tee, and prepared them for the battle ahead.
That brings us back to the present. The day before the Tampa Bay Derby, trainer Pat Byrne announced he would not run Take Charge Indy, who would have gone off as the favorite or second choice. Bryne told DRF, “We just decided we’re not going to go up to Tampa to come out of the 10 hole over a track he’s never been on before. We’ll just keep him here and shoot for the Florida Derby now. I guess it means we’ll be putting all our balls in one basket, having only one more Derby prep instead of two, but the Florida Derby is a $1 million race, so even if he finishes second or third we should have enough earnings to make the Derby.”
What Byrne is saying is that he doesn’t want to risk losing the Tampa Bay Derby because of the post. So, what if he did lose? Byrne had planned a three-prep schedule for a horse who is on the improve, but hasn’t run since Jan. 29. Altering a healthy, sound horse’s schedule when each race is so vital is tempting fate, as Byrne even alluded to. What if Take Charge Indy, who will be facing a top-class field in the Florida Derby, runs a good third, which would be excellent coming off a two-month layoff against the likes of Union Rags, Alpha, and possibly El Padrino? Then again, what if that’s not enough to get him in the Kentucky Derby field and he misses out by the amount he would have earned with a second or third in the Tampa Bay Derby? Not to mention the fact he would need a gut-check in the Florida Derby to be toughened and seasoned enough for the Kentucky Derby, with only two races under his belt this year. We only mention the earnings scenario as a matter of principle; he likely would have enough with a Florida Derby placing.
This is a horse who has picked up a check in every one of his starts, including a pair of grade Is and a grade III. Would breaking from post 10 have been that disastrous in a field with only two grade III winners where the morning line favorite had only run twice in his career and never in a stakes? Post 12 didn’t stop Hansen in the Gotham and look how much he got out of that race. Even in the worst case scenario that Take Charge Indy got caught incredibly wide on both turns and failed to pick up any money. Would he be in any different shape he is now heading into the Florida Derby other than having that all-important extra race in him?
Look, Byrne is a veteran, successful trainer of champions and multiple Breeders’ Cup winners, so we’re not saying what he’s doing is wrong; just perplexing. Take Charge Indy could very well be unaffected by this major last-minute schedule change and run his eyeballs out in the Florida Derby. But our old-fashioned brain just can’t grasp it. Again, from Byrne’s own comments, it all seems to boil down to nothing more than fear of losing.
Following I’ll Have Another’s resounding victory in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at the insane odds of 43-1 in his first start of the year, it was decided to skip the San Felipe Stakes and wait two months for the Santa Anita Derby, despite the colt having had only three career starts, which were broken up by a five-month layoff between 2 and 3. The reason given in this instance was the “bounce” factor. Racing has become a sport ruled by speed figures and numbers, and, we repeat what we’ve been saying: gone are the days of sending tough, battle-tested horses to the Derby.
Because I’ll Have Another ran an outstanding “4” Ragozin number in the Lewis, the feeling was that he would bounce in the San Felipe. Traditional thinking asks, “So what?” Here we go again with the fear of losing. After all, these are prep races and it’s OK to regress a bit off a big effort. It’s OK to lose. By skipping the San Felipe, will I’ll Have Another, coming off an eight-week layoff, again be razor sharp in the Santa Anita Derby, possibly run another monster race, and then be in danger of bouncing in the one race in which you don’t want your horse to bounce? Why not just get the bounce out of the way two starts before the Derby when it really matters little? Then you can use the Santa Anita Derby to move forward, while getting a third race into him for foundation, and in his case, experience.
In short, the goal is to peak on Derby Day, not the race before or two races before. Ask John Shirreffs if all those consecutive defeats with Giacomo bothered him. They only bothered those who made him 50-1 on Derby Day. There was only one day Shirreffs was interested in getting to the winner’s circle. If you run a freaky race on Feb. 4, as I’ll Have Another did, you still have two more potential starts to turn the engines down and then start them up again. I’ll Have Another’s connections chose not to go that route, and again we’ll just have to see how it plays out.
With that said, we really like I’ll Have Another – loved everything we saw in the Lewis and feel he’s a much better horse than people think, which is why he’s been ranked so high on the Derby Dozen. And his owner, Paul Reddam, is one of our favorite people in racing and one of the easiest guys to root for. The Robert Lewis was far from a fluke, despite the crazy odds, and I'll Have Another could very well wind up the leading California Derby contender. You just can’t help but be a little leery walking on eggshells, knowing there is no room for even the slightest error or setback and the danger of another knockout performance. Knocking out your sparring partner doesn’t help you when you get in the ring for the biggest fight of your life, especially not having fought much over the past couple of years.
These are just two examples of trainers taking the conservative route and minimizing their chances of defeat. We have not heard either trainer say anything about their horse’s constitution or soundness, so we can only assume both colts would be physically and mentally up to the task of competing in three preps, which was never considered an arduous schedule.
Again, we have nothing but respect for Byrne and O’Neill and are not implying what they are doing is wrong. That would be irresponsible from someone who has never trained a horse. We mention all this having watched races, especially the Kentucky Derby, for over 40 years. We don’t knock what they’re doing. We just don’t get it.
(We’ll gladly print any further comments from Byrne and O’Neill in our next column)