Everybody loves you on the Derby trail when you run fast. Go ahead and run fast in your final Kentucky Derby prep. You’ll get all the publicity and your horse will be sitting right at or near the top of everyone’s Derby lists. The photographers will flock around your horse and they’ll start calling him the next Seattle Slew. Go ahead; you’ll love it, so enjoy it. Just don’t act bewildered when your freakishly fast Bellamy Road finishes up the track on the first Saturday in May and a “slowpoke” like Giacomo comes charging by you in the stretch.
Speed in prep races, especially the final major prep, does not equate to winning the Kentucky Derby. There have been many occasions when a lack of speed sent up warning flares that perhaps a horse was not good enough to win the Derby or too slow to win the Derby or it was a sign he was going backwards.
Look, even the greatest have been fooled by a horse’s lack of speed. In 1964, when Northern Dancer won the Flamingo Stakes in a sprightly 1:47 4/5, Bill Shoemaker was thrilled and was already smelling the roses. But then when Northern Dancer won the Florida Derby by a hard-earned length in a sluggish 1:50 4/5, it was enough for Shoemaker to start looking elsewhere and he took off Northern Dancer to ride the brilliant California horse Hill Rise, a big powerful colt who could have swallowed the diminutive Northern Dancer in a single helping.
Horatio Luro named Bill Hartack to ride Northern Dancer in the Blue Grass Stakes and he again was all out to win by a half-length in a slow 1:49 4/5. But come Derby Day, Northern Dancer not only defeated his old partner and Hill Rise, he ran the fastest Derby in history (2:00 flat); a record that would stand until Secretariat broke it in 1973. It still remains the third fastest Derby of all time.
In 1979, Spectacular Bid started the year off by winning the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes in a swift 1:21 2/5. He followed that up with easy victories in the Fountain of Youth (in 1:41 1/5), Florida Derby, and Flamingo Stakes, although his times in March were significantly slower than his times in February. Then he managed to run even slower in the Blue Grass Stakes, getting the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50, crawling home his final eighth in :13 4/5. But that certainly didn’t stop him from easily winning the Derby and Preakness and breaking six more track records during his career.
When you think of California speedballs Swaps and Majestic Prince, you think of blazing fast horses who could carry their speed classic distances. But few realize both came into the Derby off fairly similar campaigns. Swaps won the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes in the slop in 1:24 and then was all out to win the Santa Anita Derby by a half-length in a very ordinary 1:50. So Mesh Tenney brought him to Churchill Downs to sharpen him up in a six-furlong allowance race, which Swaps won easily in a paid workout in 1:10 1/5. He then defeated the Beast of the East, Nashua, in the Kentucky Derby and went to break track and world records throughout his career.
Majestic Prince, the highest-priced yearling ever sold at $250,000, was undefeated, winning the San Vicente in the mud in 1:25 3/5 before winning the one-mile San Jacinto Stakes in 1:36 3/5 on a good track. Neither race was anything to rave about time-wise. Everyone was expecting a monster effort in the Santa Anita Derby, and although The Prince won easily by eight lengths, he beat a weak field in 1:49 1/5, coming home his final three-eighths in a pedestrian :38 3/5. So Johnny Longden, like Tenney, sent Majestic Prince to Churchill Downs to run in a seven-furlong allowance, then called the Stepping Stone Purse, the week before the Derby, and The Prince easily defeated two opponents in an exhibition race in 1:21 3/5 before winning the Derby and Preakness.
After Secretariat won the Gotham Stakes in a track record-equaling 1:33 2/5, everyone was greatly anticipating his showdown with California sensation Sham in the Wood Memorial, where the stakes record looked to be in danger. Secretariat not only was beaten in the Wood, run in a slow 1:49 4/5, he was beaten four lengths by stablemate Angle Light, which means Big Red ran his 1 1/8 miles in 1:50 3/5. Of course, he then came back to break track records in the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.
Even Seattle Slew’s time in his final prep was a disappointment to many fans, who flocked to the Wood Memorial to see another sensational performance after Slew won his 3-year-old debut going seven furlongs in a track-record 1:20 3/5 and then romped in the Flamingo Stakes in a blazing 1:47 2/5. But in the Wood, run over a fast track, he turned a six-length lead at the eighth pole into a 3 1/4-length victory in a sluggish 1:49 3/5, coming home his final eighth in :13.
So, with brilliant horses like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Majestic Prince, Swaps, Northern Dancer, and Spectacular Bid, the times of their final major preps meant absolutely nothing.
Although Easy Goer didn’t win the Kentucky Derby, partially because of a wet track at Churchill Downs that he had already shown the year before he hated, he did turn in one of the most brilliant Derby preps in history, winning the one-mile Gotham Stakes by 13 lengths in a scorching 1:32 2/5, one-fifth of a second off Dr. Fager’s world record. That got everyone talking as if we were witnessing one of the all-time greats. But then, with most everyone expecting another spectacular performance in the Wood Memorial, Easy Goer won under a fairly vigorous hand ride in a rather slow 1:50 3/5. How could a horse run so fast one race and then run such a slow race two weeks later? It’s the Derby trail, and this was before the word “bounce” entered the racing vernacular.
Throughout the years, we’ve seen top-class horses and Kentucky Derby winners run slow times in their major prep races. Unbridled won the Florida Derby in a dawdling 1:52 and captured the Kentucky Derby impressively. Street Sense was beaten a nose on Keeneland’s Polytrack in the Blue Grass Stakes in 1:51 1/5 before easily winning the Kentucky Derby. Orb won the Florida Derby in 1:50 4/5 before taking the Kentucky Derby. In Canonero II’s final prep in Venezuela, he finished third at 2-5, beaten nearly four lengths. The final time for the about 1 1/8 miles was 1:54 4/5, meaning Canonero went the distance in 1:55 3/5. He not only won the Kentucky Derby, he ran the fastest Preakness in history (an honor that later was awarded to Secretariat).
Top-class horses Round Table, Arts and Letters, Skip Away, Chief’s Crown, and Ridan all won the Blue Grass Stakes in under 1:48. All lost the Derby. When a filly, Althea, shattered the track record at Oaklawn Park, winning the Arkansas Derby in 1:46 4/5, fans got so caught up in the time they made her the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. She finished 19th, beaten nearly 31 lengths.
So, let’s not get caught up in times on the Derby trail. Fast times do not win the Derby and slow times do not lose the Derby. A prep is just that, and is merely a steppingstone to the big day when you want to be at your peak. Everything before that is merely window dressing.