Welcome to the New Kentucky Derby

Saigon Warrior boasted one victory in 17 career starts and was beaten 31 lengths in his only stakes appearance. Fourulla was a maiden in four career starts. Big Brown Bear had one victory in 17 career starts with his last win coming the year before when he was claimed for $15,000. Majestic Needle had won two races in 21 career starts and in his only two stakes appearances he was beaten 21 lengths in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and 26 lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes. Royal Leverage had a win and a second in 10 career starts, five of them in claiming races, with his only victory coming for a $10,000 claiming tag. Napoise had won two of his 13 starts and had never competed in a stakes. Pacallo had made 20 starts in Puerto Rico, five of them in $8,000 to $12,000 claiming races, and in his only start in America, he finished sixth, beaten 11 lengths in an allowance race. On the Money had one victory in 13 career starts and was coming off a 10-race losing streak. Our Trade Winds had won three races in 17 starts, and in his last three starts, he was beaten 11 lengths, 17 lengths, and fell in the other one.

These are just a few of the horses who ran in the 1971 and ’72 Kentucky Derbys. This is the way it was back then, when anyone, I emphasize anyone, could and did run in the Derby. So, the next time you complain about a Derby field made up of 20 stakes horses who had to qualify to get in the race, just look back at the way it was when you were fortunate to get from half-dozen to eight top-class horses in the field.

As you can also see, horses back then were raced extensively, which is putting it mildly. As I’ve written on numerous occasions, Jim French in 1971 went into the Derby having run in 11 stakes in a five-month period and didn’t run worse than fourth in any of them. Not only was Jim French unfazed by this grueling schedule he managed to finish second in the Derby, third in the Preakness, and second in the Belmont Stakes and still kept racing about every two weeks after that. Calumet Farm’s Florida Derby winner Eastern Fleet had 10 starts at 3 going into the Derby. In 1972, Hassi’s Image went into the Derby having made 13 starts as a 3-year-old. 

Obviously, times have changed. Many people have commented recently they don’t like American Pharoah or Carpe Diem because they haven’t run yet this year and won’t make their debuts until March. While I am of the old school, feeling a 3-year-old should have a good foundation at 3, I acknowledge the changing times and the thinking of trainers nowadays.

As for those who are apprehensive about the late starts, remember that Street Sense and Super Saver didn’t make their 3-year-old debuts until March 17 in the Tampa Bay Derby. Big Brown, with only one maiden win on the grass at 2, didn’t debut until March 5 in an off-the-turf allowance race. Animal Kingdom, with only two career starts at 2, including a maiden win at Keeneland, didn’t debut until March 3 in an allowance/optional claimer on grass. Mine That Bird didn’t debut until Feb. 28 in the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park.

Street Sense and Super Saver both were involved in gut-wrenching stretch battles in the Tampa Bay Derby and then were beaten in photos after another tough stretch battle in their final Derby prep. Those two races made them battle-tested for the Derby, which they both won going away by more than two lengths.

Big Brown went on to romp in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, becoming the first horse to win the Run for the Roses off only three lifetime starts since Regret in 1915. This was a freak of a racehorse who also caught a weak crop of 3-year-olds.

Animal Kingdom went on to win the Spiral Stakes on Polytrack and then went straight to Churchill Downs and became the first horse in history to win the Derby in his first ever start on dirt.

There is nothing within the realm of logic that can explain Mine That Bird’s Derby romp, coming off two defeats at Sunland Park and blowing his field away in the slop after suddenly taking off on the far turn as if someone had stuck a hot branding iron on his rump.

What all this means is that there are no more rules when it comes to winning the Derby. In recent years, we’ve seen horses win following any path to get there, whether it’s Sunland Park, Turfway Park’s Polytrack, Keeneland’s Polytrack, Tampa Bay Downs, California-bred races or grass allowance races. The past 30 years has shown us that horses can win coming off close finishes, such as Street Sense, Super Saver, Barbaro, Funny Cide, Silver Charm, Grindstone, Alysheba, Lil E. Tee, and I’ll Have Another or they can win coming off decisive victories, such as Big Brown, War Emblem, Fusaichi Pegasus, Smarty Jones, Sunday Silence, Winning Colors, Spend a Buck, and Charismatic. They could even have finished out of the money in their last start, such Mine That Bird, Thunder Gulch, Giacomo, and Sea Hero or run for a claiming tag, such as Charismatic.

Major steppingstones, such as the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, and Arkansas Derby are now just one of many ways of getting to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May.

With 20-horse fields, consisting of 20 stakes horses who have to qualify to get in the Derby, the best horse, in general, no longer wins, but the best and luckiest horse on that particular day, which is a major contributing factor as to why we haven’t had a Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Nine of the 11 Triple Crown winners went off at odds of 5-2 or less in the Derby, with four of them going of at even-money or less and seven of them at 9-5 or less. The average Kentucky Derby odds of the eight horses since 1996 who had their Triple Crown dreams quashed in the Belmont Stakes has been $10.40-1. So the whole fabric of the Triple Crown has changed. Many of the Derby winners who would try to make history at Belmont were not dominant horses at Churchill Downs the way the Triple Crown winners were.

Today, we have 19 or 20 stakes horses in the Derby every year. In the years when we had a Triple Crown winner, the average number of horses in the Kentucky Derby was 12.7. So, back then, unlike now, the best horse on most occasions did win the Derby without having to contend with traffic issues in a huge field and would go on to face the same horses he defeated at Churchill Downs in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, unlike now when you always have fresh, talented horses waiting in the Belmont. And as shown in the first paragraph, many of the horses the Derby winner defeated didn’t even belong in a stakes race, never mind the Derby.

Of course, there are other reasons why horses haven’t won the Triple Crown in nearly four decades, which we won’t get into now. This is more about the change in attitude and training methods, and how you can’t discount horses anymore because of minimal racing or which path they take. For me, old habits die hard and although I can draw the line and try to focus on horses with some kind of foundation, the changing times have forced me to keep an open mind, knowing that when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, there are no more rules.

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