Inside the Kentucky Derby Trail

On January 24, we will kick off the 2017 Derby Dozen on Ever since my Daily Racing Form colleague Steve Feldman and I inaugurated the first Derby Dozen in 1993, analysis of the early Kentucky Derby contenders has become a rite of winter. As I watch the first snow of the winter fall on Hamilton Square on a cold gray morning I can’t help but think of Amanda McBroom’s brilliant closing lyrics to her hit song The Rose:  “Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snow, lies the seed that with the sun's love, in the spring becomes the rose.”

What better way to bring color to winter than to envision roses in bloom on the first Saturday in May, scented green leaves adorning glasses of mint juleps, and the famed Twin Spires piercing a bright cerulean sky. Each year those images beckon all those who dare to dream.

At this time of the year, hopes run high, as trainers and owners across the country look at their promising 3-year-olds and have visions of grandeur and Kentucky Derby immortality. This is that special time when the different paths on the Derby trail are being meticulously mapped out and everyone’s dreams are still alive. -- but with the knowledge that one wrong decision, one bad ride in a crucial race, one bad step, or one lingering illness can crush those dreams  in a heartbeat.

With every move and every scheduled prep race so critical, there are many ways of approaching the arduous and often perilous road to Louisville. Be aware that many trainers are going to lose their way and prove unable to complete the journey, due to various types of misfortune or poor decisions or the pressure that continues to build over a four-month period. Only one will make every right decision, luck out with injuries, have their horse peaking on the first Saturday in May, and get to drape the blanket of roses over their horse’s neck.

Some years we have a single standout horse, on whom all eyes will be focused from the very beginning. Other years we have false early favorites who fail to move forward and give way to the emergence of late-developing stars. On some occasions we will see a wide-open Derby trail from start to finish, with no one stepping forward to assume the role of clear Derby favorite. And then you have a year like this, with four solid contenders with excellent Derby pedigrees who are difficult to rank. Trying to separate major stakes winners Classic Empire, McCraken, Mo Town, and Mastery is not an easy task. The big shame was losing the talented and classy Not This Time to injury. He looked to be any kind and would have been ranked first or second on most Derby lists.

But whether you have one of the Derby favorites, a solid second or third tier horse with stakes credentials, or a late-developing, promising horse, you must avoid the pitfalls that have claimed so many horses over the years.

Sometimes, the hardest pitfall to avoid is having your horse peaking too early. How often have we seen horses, whether proven stakes competitors or brilliant up-and-comers, win by the length of the stretch in very fast time and earn extremely fast speed figures? Although that creates a great deal of buzz and a likely spot in the next Derby Future Wager field, it usually is nothing more than a quick high that eventually leads to an equally quick exit from the Derby trail.

The truth is, that is the last thing you want to see in January and February. The road to the Derby is all about progression and you do not want to leave your horse with nowhere to go but down. We have seen it on a number of occasions with talented Todd Pletcher-trained horses, many of whom break their maidens or win allowance races early in the year like potential superhorses and get the public and the experts all excited. But trying to keep an inexperienced horse with that much brilliance in top form and prevent him from crashing is very difficult to do, as Pletcher can attest. The one time Pletcher won the Derby it was with an experienced horse with major 2-year-old stakes credentials who actually lost both his Derby preps at 3, but used each one to move forward and peak on Derby Day. Following the Derby, that horse, Super Saver, ran three more times and was out of the money in all of them. But Pletcher had him peaking on the one day that mattered.

On many occasions, Pletcher has attempted to get to the Derby with horses who had as few as three or four career starts, several of them with no 2-year-old races under them, which means they had to face the dreaded Apollo curse. But when they are so brilliant early on and demonstrate such extraordinary talent it makes it difficult to tell your owner his or her horse isn’t ready for the Derby. As a result, many of those horses were never heard from again or disappeared for long periods of time.

Bob Baffert on the other hand is the modern-day Ben Jones, as demonstrated by his remarkable Derby record. Baffert’s training philosophy is reminiscent of legendary trainers such as Max Hirsch, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, John Gaver, and Ben and Jimmy Jones. Unlike most of the conservative trainers of today, Baffert, like those mentioned above, works his horses consistently fast and will work them six and seven furlongs. Those that can’t handle it will fall by the wayside, but those that can come into the Derby sharp, fit, toughened, and in peak form. Baffert’s owners are OK with that method, because the vast majority of them want to win the Kentucky Derby more than anything else and no one knows how to go about it better than Baffert, who like another multiple Derby winner, D. Wayne Lukas, came from the speed-oriented world of Quarter Horse racing. 

Because Baffert’s horses are in such great condition and are able to handle the rigors of the Derby so well, they always go on to run just as big in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. All four of Baffert’s Derby winners came back in two weeks to win the Preakness. One captured the Triple Crown and two others were narrowly beaten in the Belmont Stakes. 

So, even though Baffert’s horses work fast and often longer than most horses, it gets the spit and vinegar out of them in the morning and keeps them from running too fast in the afternoon and peaking too soon. You just don’t see Baffert’s horses leaving their race on the track. It is not until April and the final preps that he really starts cranking them up for their big efforts. They then come to Churchill Downs razor sharp, but with a lot left in the tank, and by Derby Day they are not only ready to peak but actually improve their form through the Triple Crown.

Baffert, as usual, has a number of Derby prospects, headed by the aforementioned grade I winner Mastery, of whom he is extremely high. He did recently lose two talented horses in Klimt and Iliad after he parted company with one of his big owners, Kaleem Shah. But keep an eye on maiden winners Beach Bum, Dabster, Irish Freedom, and American Anthem, who runs Saturday in the Sham Stakes.

All Pletcher departed 2016 with on the stakes front is the ultra-quick Champagne runnerup Syndergaard, but has since unveiled brilliant maiden winners Alum, Battalion Runner, and Malagacy. However, he finds himself in the same position mentioned earlier – playing catchup with late-developing horses. All look as if they have a bright future, and we’ll see if Pletcher can get them to keep moving forward.

The best of the best right now looks to be the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and likely 2-year-old champion Classic Empire, who has recovered from his brief mental lapse in the Hopeful Stakes to develop into a true professional classic type horse. He is in excellent hands, being in the barn of Mark Casse and his son Norman, who no doubt will be a top trainer himself one day. The Casse barn has improved every year and has now become a dominant force in racing. So we know Classic Empire, with his sensational pedigree on both sides, will be brought up to the Derby the right way.

McCraken has already won a pair of major stakes at Churchill Downs, and did it the right way, with a powerful turn of foot. Another impeccably bred horse, McCraken is trained by the popular Ian Wilkes. Although he may seem to be inexperienced when it comes to the Derby, be aware that it was Wilkes who teamed up with his mentor Carl Nafzger to win the 2007 Run for the Roses with Street Sense. With Nafzger, who won the Derby with Unbridled in 1990, semi-retired in 2007, Wilkes played a major role in getting Street Sense to win the Derby. It was truly a team effort.

As for Mo Town, a beautiful-moving horse I have been extremely high on since he broke his maiden so impressively and carried it over to the Remsen Stakes, he is trained by Tony Dutrow, who is not your typical Derby-type trainer, as he tends to give his horses time and doesn’t rush them. But Dutrow is a trainer’s trainer who always does right by his horses. And it looks as if Mo Town, who has already started working at Payson Park, is going to take him to Louisville. If he gets there, you can bet he will be in top form and ready for a peak effort. Dutrow looked to have a Derby contender in 2010 in Winslow Homer, winner of the Holy Bull Stakes, but the colt fell off the Derby trail with a stress fracture.

So, we have four solid leading Derby contenders at this point, all with classic pedigrees, all with the right running style, and all in excellent, experienced hands. That’s pretty much all you can ask for in January.

With a pair of historic grade I Derby preps, the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, downgraded to grade II this year, it is hoped the aforementioned trainers pointing for these races long range as their final Derby prep keep the schedule they had mapped out rather than chase grade I races, of which there are now only three – in California, Florida, and Arkansas. The Wood and Blue Grass are still prestigious races that suffered when the dates of the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby were moved forward. That meant that the horses in those races went straight to the Kentucky Derby rather than have their final prep in the Wood or Blue Grass.

So, it is time to embark on another Derby trail. History has shown us you never know what to expect on this long twisting road with surprises and obstacles at every turn.

As Rod Serling would say every week on The Twilight Zone, “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop….Churchill Downs!”

See, always expect the unexpected on the Derby trail.

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