Haskin's Derby Trail: The Powers of Illusion

Not everything on the Derby trail is what it seems. There are so many twists and turns it is often futile to plot a course and expect every step to go as planned. This applies to everyone, not just trainers and owners.

So, when all the “experts” say a horse can’t go a mile and a quarter or is too slow or is regressing instead of moving forward, that doesn’t necessarily make it so.

Picture the following scenario. A horse begins his career in spectacular fashion, but does so against maidens, state-breds, and in a non-graded stakes that is not known for producing Derby winners. On top of that, his sire was a sprinter/miler who had not produced any distance horses; his dam never won over a mile in 39 career starts, and his broodmare sire was a champion sprinter.

In the horse’s fourth career start, going a mile in a non-graded stakes, he opens a two-length lead at the eighth pole and then has to be hard-ridden in the final furlong, hanging on to win by three-quarters of a length, while coming home his final half in a sluggish :51 3/5 and slowing down to a :26 1/5 final quarter.

His last three three Beyer figures drop from a 105 to a 97 to a 95.

Clearly, this is a horse who will not get a mile and a quarter and who is going the wrong way, getting slower instead of faster. In short, this is a good horse, but not a Kentucky Derby horse.

That horse was named Smarty Jones. To demonstrate how unpredictable this sport is, Smarty’s dam, I’ll Get Along, sold as a yearling to small-time Pennsylvania owners and breeders Roy and Pat Chapman for $40,000. In 2001, I’ll Get Along dropped an Elusive Quality colt who they would name Smarty Jones after Pat Chapman’s mother. Later that same year, the Chapmans sold I’ll Get Along at the Keeneland November mixed sale for $130,000 to Cloverleaf Farm, just a few weeks before their trainer, Bob Camac, and his wife were murdered. Crushed over losing their trainer and good friend, the Chapmans decided to get out of the sport and sell all their horses, but were dissuaded from selling the Elusive Quality colt by their farm manager, who thought he could be something special.

We all know what happened after that. Smarty Jones improved with every start following that mile non-graded stakes (the Southwest), winning the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness (by a record 11 1/2 lengths), becoming one of the most beloved and popular horses in history and a hero to the city of Philadelphia. Later that same year, Cloverleaf Farm took advantage of Smarty Jones’ nationwide popularity, selling I’ll Get Along, in foal to Elusive Quality, at the Fasig-Tipton November mixed sale for $5 million.

The resulting foal, however, would run 16 times, with only one win, one second, and one third, and eventually was sent to Argentina. Of I’ll Get Along’s next six foals, three were unraced, one was born dead, and the remaining two won a combined three races in 13 starts.

This is just one example of why we should always expect the unexpected on the Derby trail, and in fact all aspects of the Thoroughbred industry, from the racetrack to the breeding shed. While there are those who are more experienced and knowledgeable, whether at handicapping, training, or breeding, it is always wise to adhere to the old saying, “There is nothing like a horse to make a person look like an ass.”

If you don’t think that’s true, how did Mine That Bird win the Derby by 6 1/2 lengths, despite having a feeble high Beyer figure of 81 and finishing out of the money at Sunland Park? How did Animal Kingdom win the Derby in his first ever start on dirt, something that had never been done before? How did a New York-bred gelding win the Derby when no New York-bred had ever won and no gelding had won in 74 years? How did Giacomo win the Derby having won only one of seven career starts and coming off five consecutive defeats? How did I’ll Have Another win the Derby from post 19, having had only one start in the previous three months and ridden by an unknown jockey from Hastings Park in Vancouver, Canada? And how did Big Brown win the Derby from post 20, while becoming the first horse in 93 years to win with only three career starts?

Statistical formulas, history, and even common sense are fine for occupying your mind as you follow these noble steeds on the perilous Derby trail. But if you expect them to actually pinpoint the Derby winner in that 20-horse cavalry charge, you’re likely in for a rude awakening. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try. What else are you going to do in January and February? Those lucky (and I stress the word lucky) enough to actually ferret out that elusive Derby winner and cash a ticket will have bragging rights for an entire year. And the earlier you find him the harder you can beat your chest. Just don’t take the search or the conquest too seriously. You can bet there is a horse right around the corner just waiting to make you feel like an ass. 

Wait a minute. How about that first-time starter Integrity who won so impressively at Gulfstream Thursday? Sure looks like a Derby horse to me…“Gee, that’s better. Muddah, Faddah kindly disregard this letter.”

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