A Derby Road Less Traveled

We have seen numerous changes in racing over the years, both in ideology and execution. There obviously have been great improvements technologically, and there have been dramatic changes in training philosophy, especially in preparing a horse for the Kentucky Derby.

Perhaps the biggest change can be attributed to the new points system that trainers now swear by to assure their horse or horses qualify for the Derby. With 3-year-olds running basically two or three times tops prior to the Derby, there is little or no room for races that offer zero points.

As someone who has been following the Derby trail since 1967, I have to admit there has been one change that has altered the entire concept of Derby preps, and not for the better. And we can blame not only the points system for that, but racing secretaries, the disinterest of trainers, a lack of seasoned 2-year-olds, and the mindset of this generation of horsemen.

See how long it takes you to answer this question. Going back to the 1960s and 1970s, and even the majority of the 1980s, what do these 2-year-old and 3-year-old champions and classic winners have in common?

In the 1970s, Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Riva Ridge, Foolish Pleasure, Hoist the Flag, Little Current, Key to the Mint, Honest Pleasure, Bold Forbes, Rockhill Native, and we’ll include Alydar on the list.

In the 1960s, Damascus, Buckpasser, Arts and Letters, Majestic Prince, Kelso, Northern Dancer, Bold Lad, Top Knight, Chateaugay, Successor, and Vitriolic.

And we’ll add in the 1980s, Easy Goer, Sunday Silence, Swale, Spend a Buck, Devil’s Bag, Chief’s Crown, Conquistador Cielo, Forty Niner, Gulch, and Plugged Nickle.

The answer is every one of these horses made their 3-year-old debut in a sprint race. A total of 19 of them were in allowance races, and the rest were in the Hutcheson, Bahamas, Bay Shore, Swale, Swift, Hibiscus, Los Feliz, San Miguel, and Key West Stakes.

Racing secretaries, except perhaps on a very rare occasion, no longer write sprint allowance races, and trainers with Kentucky Derby hopefuls no longer have any interest in starting off the year in a sprint for several reasons. One is that it’s not in their DNA anymore; it’s all about two-turn races, and most of all, the existing stakes mentioned above carry no Derby points, and trainers are reluctant to “waste” a race in which they receive no all-important points.

So with no points, and no allowance race alternatives, the races that used to launch just about every top 3-year-old’s Derby campaign no longer have any bearing on the Derby trail, pretty much forcing trainers to start their horses off in two-turn races and hope they don’t peak too early over a distance of ground. In an attempt to avoid this, most start their horses only twice before the Derby.

With only two Derby preps and no sharpener to take some of the early edge off them, horses jump right into the grind of the Triple Crown, many of them unprepared for its rigors and the sharpness required, and the vast majority of them never make it to the Belmont. You’re lucky to find one or two horses anymore who compete in all three legs. Many of those that do compete on the Derby trail and run in two or three legs of the Triple Crown cannot be found by the end of the year, leaving races like the Travers for the most part to the late developers who were not ready to compete in the Triple Crown or at least the first two legs. The philosophy now with so many unfit horses and horses who have been dulled by nothing but two-turn races is that if you don’t win the Derby, why come back in two weeks for the Preakness? That thought process is counter-productive to what the Triple Crown is all about.

Perhaps there is a reason why only one Kentucky Derby winner in the past 21 years has gone on to win the Travers, and more importantly why only one horse  – Street Sense – has won ever the Travers having had only two starts before the Derby. Of course, one of those who failed was American Pharoah. It shows what an extraordinary horse he was to be able to bounce back off a two-month rest after the Travers defeat and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Fortunately, we do have a couple of trainers – Keith Desormeaux and Doug O’Neill – who are willing to forego the points and start their proven horses off the way trainers used to, in sprint races. Desormeaux went against the grain last year by debuting Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes and he got just what he was a looking for – a good sharpener in a game neck defeat to a fast sprinter. Unfortunately, an injury knocked him off the Derby trail.

This year, Desormeaux will be trying the same tactics with the graded stakes winner Exaggerator, who will face off against 2-year-old champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist, trained by O’Neill. With allowance sprints pretty much a thing of the past, this is the best way to get that sharpener in. – the heck with the points. These are two trainers who are doing what they feel best helps their horse.

If history has proven that starting a 3-year-old campaign off in a sprint is the ideal way to go, and we do have a couple of high-profile individuals who are adhering to that, then why don’t races like the San Vicente, Hutcheson, and Swale Stakes award any points? Why are we forcing trainers to start their horses off around two turns?

Perhaps if they did award points to selective sprints, NYRA would move the Bay Shore back to where it was earlier on the calendar. It was good enough for Secretariat. Perhaps Oaklawn could change the distance of the Smarty Jones Stakes to a sprint. Starting the year off in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes, winning handily in 1:09 2/5, certainly didn’t hurt Afleet Alex’s chances of romping in the Arkansas Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes and just missing in the Kentucky Derby, despite suffering from a lung infection.

As for allowance sprints, which served as debuts for Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Damascus, Buckpasser, Arts and Letters, Alydar, Northern Dancer, Foolish Pleasure, as well as Triple Crown winners Citation, Whirlaway, and War Admiral, is it the chicken and the egg question? Do racing secretaries fail to card them anymore because there is no interest from trainers or is there no interest from trainers because there are none carded anymore? 

The bottom line is that it is time we start awarding points to early 3-year-old sprint stakes and for racing secretaries to attempt to entice trainers with allowance races for horses not quite ready to face the fastest 3-year-olds.

It used to be that a Derby prep, whether one or two turns, was just that – a prep, and winning was not a priority as long as it served its purpose. You used those preps to get your horse to the Derby the right way and have him peak on the first Saturday in May, not in the Holy Bull Stakes or a two-turn allowance race in January.

Now trainers are unable to sprint their horses and have to juggle the two-turn stakes like they were pieces of a puzzle, where one misplaced piece could cost you a precious spot in the Derby field.

It certainly provides fans with entertainment and intrigue, but at what cost in the long run?

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