The runners embarking on the 2018 Kentucky Derby trail, have gathered, like the massive throng on the Verrazano Bridge before the start of the New York Marathon, and they are now five days into their annual assault on Churchill Downs that will involve four months of blissful torture for owners and trainers who envision the blanket of roses draped over their horse's withers on the First Saturday in May, but are fearful of the many pitfalls that stand in their path. This is the time when every early morning phone call brings a feeling of dread.
Looking at this annual rite of spring in a different manner, imagine the journey to Louisville as more of an equine Iditarod, where the four-legged participants run as far as they can in the ultimate test of courage, perseverance, and stamina, while battling injuries and the elements. We humans are merely along for the ride, hoping the magnificent animals pulling us are able to get there unscathed and sharp enough and fresh enough to make one final push and cross the finish line first.
It is an arduous journey, and we have seen many, including a number of potential superstars, fall by the wayside, never getting a chance to prove their greatness. It was a crushing blow to see Calumet's ascending star Gen. Duke drop out of the race in 1957, and in 1966 when the freakishly brilliant Graustark, the shortest priced Future Book favorite in history, failed to make it to Louisville, never to race again. And was there anyone who doubted that greatness awaited the magnificent Hoist the Flag when he broke down training for the Gotham Stakes in 1971? There have been too many others since then to mention, other than just last year when we lost the exciting Mastery, and before that, Cairo Prince, Violence, and Algorithms in successive years.
This is not meant to place an ominous shroud over the current crop of aspiring hopefuls, but it did not take long for two-time grade 1 winner and a leading Eclipse Award contender Bolt d'Oro to suffer a pulled muscle, which alone should not prevent him from making it to the Derby, but has forced his connections to skip his scheduled debut in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes. And three words you never want to hear on the Derby trail are suffered, forced, and skip. So, just a few steps off the starting block and one of the big Derby favorites is already compromised, having to alter his schedule from three pre-Derby starts to just two, and missing what could be an important sharpener to prepare for the series of two-turn races ahead, something his trainer obviously felt was important.
To show how much the Derby trail has changed, for the first time we could have a Derby favorite go into his 3-year-old campaign having broken his maiden in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and in only his third start. But maybe the Derby trail hasn't changed as much as we think, and we are starting to go back to its roots. Granted, the Derby was a far less significant race in the early 1900s, but it is interesting to note that when Regret won in 1915 and pretty much put the race on the map, she had not run since the six-furlong Hopeful Stakes at 2. And when Exterminator won the 1918 Derby, his previous start was a fourth-place finish in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance the previous July. With Derby horses running fewer and fewer times, you never know how far this trend will go. Hey, if it was good enough for Regret and Exterminator, right?
The sad truth about Bolt d'Oro's setback is that it most likely is just the beginning. It is safe to say there will be others. But that is what makes the Derby trail so intriguing and a victory on the first Saturday in May all the more rewarding. Just getting there is quite an accomplishment, as is finishing the New York Marathon or the Iditarod. It is survival of the fittest. Not only do the horses have to stay sound for four months, the trainers know they cannot afford to make any mistakes. If they decide to take the conservative approach and keep their horse or horses in bubble wrap, limiting them to only two pre-Derby starts, they are fully aware that there is little or no room for error. Both races must go perfectly in order to build enough of a foundation and give their horse the experience and fitness necessary to turn in a peak performance at Churchill Downs. If you miss one of the two races you are done. If you miss one of three scheduled races you still have a chance to get there, as Classic Empire showed last year.
Whereas in the past, trainers would prepare their horses to get to the Derby by mapping out their schedule in advance, believing it to be the best path for their horse, trainers today are preoccupied with accumulating enough points to get in the starting gate, and instead of planning their schedule you often hear comments such as, "He'll run in either the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, the Tampa Bay Derby, the Gotham at Aqueduct, or the Risen Star at Fair Grounds. We'll look at the prospective fields and decide."
So, instead of believing in their horse's ability and charting the course they feel is best over a preferred track, they look for the race they feel will be the easiest in which to get points, even if it means shipping to another state. This is not true of all trainers, but it does happen quite often. Because of the nature of the Derby trail and the quest for points, it is understandable why a trainer would think that way. Most never know for sure just how good their horse is, as there are always a few lingering doubts about how they stack up against the other top contenders. Their main goal is to get to the Derby and hope for the best. They do not want to be jolted back to reality in March and April and discover their horse is not Derby material. But because of the points structure there is no way of avoiding those big 100-point races, so the truth often is inevitable. Bob Baffert has been successful because he trains right from the start to win the race, not just get there. He trains his horses long and fast, and like the old-time trainers, he weeds out the pretenders and brings only tough, brilliant, hard-knocking horses ready to peak on Derby Day. Those who make it there are ready to win, Somehow, he is almost always there with live horses.
Speaking of the 100-point races, in my opinion the Graded Stakes Committee made a huge error demoting the Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass Stakes from grade 1 to grade 2 status. How can they and the formulas they use possibly determine the Blue Grass had fallen in stature when the race had been run on Polytrack for eight years from 2007 to 2014, making those years inconsequential. They should have been totally ignored, with the race given the opportunity to once again become an important event.
And the Wood Memorial, the most historic of all the Derby preps, has been compromised by injury to several of its most notable winners, as Eskendereya, I Want Revenge, Toby's Corner, Buddha, and Irgun, all of whom would have been favorite or one of the favorites in the Derby, failed to make the race. And the highly talented Coronado's Quest also skipped the Derby. Of the last five winners, three — Verrazano, Wicked Strong, and Frosted all went on to win major stakes at 3, while another, Irish War Cry, finished second in the Belmont Stakes. And since 2000, you sure couldn't knock the efforts of Fusaichi Pegasus, Empire Maker, and Congaree in the Derby. So, how did this warrant a demotion in status after so many years as a grade 1 race? Producing Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Count Fleet, and Assault, as well as Derby winners Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, Pleasant Colony, and classic winners Damascus, Native Dancer, Nashua, and Easy Goer should mean something considering the race's impact on history. With all the formulas and other methods the committee uses, they apparently have forgotten about tradition.
These are just a few random Derby thoughts with the 2018 Derby Dozen scheduled to start on Tuesday, January 23. Until then, we have this weekend's Sham Stakes at Santa Anita and Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream and next weekend's Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds and the rescheduled Jerome at Aqueduct. Time to start grabbing those points.