It is that time again to get up on my lonely pulpit and preach to deaf ears. Yes, it is almost time to embark on the Kentucky Derby trail, and with the recent announcement that top 2-year-old Bolt d’Oro is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, what better time to try yet again to force feed the concept of a sprint debut to trainers who have no appetite for such mundane matters.
But to their defense, they have fallen victim to the Derby’s point system, which fails to reward performances in sprint races, making them useless when it comes to accumulating sufficient points to quality for the Run for the Roses. But that certainly does not make them useless when it comes to actually winning the race, as you will see farther down.
With so many trainers now intent on running their Derby hopefuls only two times before the big race, they know all too well that it is imperative to earn as many points as possible in those two races. Even trainers planning on three starts head right to two-turn races. That can eventually dull your horse, adding more two-turn races to the ones he already had at 2. The old-time trainers believed a sprint debut is designed to take the spit and vinegar out of a horse after his layoff from 2 to 3 and sharpen him for the big two-turn preps.
On rare occasions you will find trainers nowadays who think old school and actually do what they feel is best to get their horse to peak on the first Saturday in May. These are trainers who have faith in their horse’s ability and are willing to say “points be damned, I need to sharpen him up in a sprint and feel confident he will accumulate the necessary points in the big 50- and 100-point preps in March and April.”
We saw two examples of that two years ago in the same race when trainers Doug O’Neill and Keith Desormeaux went out of the box and decided that their respective Derby hopefuls, Nyquist and Exaggerator, who had been competing in major two-turn stakes at a 2, needed to start off the year with a sprint sharpener, so they ran them in the San Vicente and they finished first and second, respectively, in a blazing 1:20 3/5 and then returned to two-turn prep races leading up to the Derby. Both colts, sharpened by that race, duplicated their efforts on the first Saturday in May, finishing first and second in the Kentucky Derby. Exaggerator then came back to win the Preakness, with Nyquist getting nosed out for second. So the San Vicente – yes, a sprint race -- proved to be the most successful prep of that year’s Triple Crown.
The facts speak for themselves. There is a reason why only one Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, in addition to Nyquist, has won the Kentucky Derby in 33 years. There is a reason why only three of 44 Remsen Stakes winners have won the Derby since the race went to 1 1/8 miles, the last being 23 years ago. There is a reason why only one winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes has gone on to win the Derby in 29 years. There is a reason why only one winner of the Hollywood Futurity (now the Los Alamitos Futurity) has won the Derby in 34 years, the last being 20 years ago. And there is a reason why only one winner of the Breeders’ Futurity has won the Derby in 36 years, the last being 34 years ago.
Is it merely a coincidence why, excluding Nyquist, there have been only seven Kentucky Derby winners to come out of the five major two-turn 2-year-old stakes in 176 runnings? Each person can form his own conclusion. Perhaps horses are peaking at two turns as 2-year-olds, and continued two-turn races without a sharpener makes it more difficult to maintain that form and then peak on Derby Day. Remember, the Derby is often won with speed as much as it is with stamina. Speed to get position early; speed to keep pace in a 20-horse field; speed to launch a bid and outrun others to a hole; and speed to outclose the contenders in the stretch. That speed has to come from somewhere, and it’s sure not going to come from running the last six or seven months in nothing but two-turn races.
As a historian and traditionalist, I have stated on several occasions that I am a firm believer, as were the trainers of the past, in starting a horse’s 3-year-old campaign in a sprint to sharpen him up for the rigors of the Triple Crown trail, especially those with extensive 2-year-old campaigns competing at two turns at the highest level.
Once again, going back to the 1960s and 1970s and even the 1980s, the following 2-year-old and 3-year-old champions and classic winners made their 3-year-old debut in a sprint:
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 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.
And before that, Triple Crown winners Citation, Whirlaway, War Admiral, and Assault, as well as Swaps, Round Table, Bold Ruler, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, and Tim Tam. As many people are aware, Man o’ War made his 3-year-old debut in the Preakness. But as a 2-year-old, in 10 starts, he never raced farther than six furlongs.
The sprint debuts by the horses listed above came in allowance races, the Hutcheson Stakes, Bahamas, Bay Shore, Swale, Swift, Hibiscus, Los Feliz, San Vicente, San Miguel, Key West Stakes and Experimental Free Handicap, many of which no longer exist.
As mentioned earlier, all the emphasis now is on earning Derby points, and there are zero points given to sprint stakes, because Churchill Downs is trying to keep the pure sprinters out of the Derby and avoid suicidal paces caused by horses who don’t belong in the race. That is understandable. But those pure sprinters are not going to earn any more points in the longer races, and chances are they won’t qualify even if their misguided connections are determined to do wrong by their horse. Maybe once in 10 years one will somehow sneak in. So while I can understand why they have eliminated points for sprints, they are depriving top-class horses and trainers of the chance to get to the Derby sharp and in peak form.
So, good for Mick Ruis and Ruis Racing for believing in their horse and running where they feel he belongs and what will get him to the Kentucky Derby the right way, despite not earning any points. With his class and brilliance and natural ability, there will be plenty of opportunity in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby to assure a spot in the Derby field.
After all, when you think of the name Bolt, you think of the greatest sprinter in the world. It all makes sense.
Exit pulpit. Nothing like a good cleansing before the Derby Dozen.