Eight Rings Will be Reopening the History Books

Here I am again back on my soapbox, much to the dismay of those who are tired of me preaching the same sermon ad nauseam.

But the truth is I don't care about those who have tired of the message. I will keep shouting it from my pulpit even knowing it will fall on deaf ears. But once on a rare occasion, such as in 2016, some trainer will go old school and follow the path to the Kentucky Derby that once was commonplace.

Back in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s and before that, trainers were free to take whatever path to Louisville they chose. They didn't have a points system to cloud their thinking and force them to often map out plans by necessity rather than by choice. By now, most trainers have gulped down the Kool-Aid and chase points rather than follow the instincts their predecessors swore by.

OK, what am I blabbering about? It's simple. History often dictates our actions. What has worked for years normally is what will work now. But that no longer holds true when it comes to the Derby trail. That is where the history books are closed.

See how long it takes you to answer this question--even though I have asked it before. Going back to the '60s and '70s, and even the 1980s, what do these 2-year-old and 3-year-old champions and classic winners have in common?

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

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.

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.

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.

The legendary trainer John Nerud said he felt it was important for a 3-year-old to start off the year by sharpening up in a sprint. Obviously every other trainer felt the same way. Nerud was never a fan of the Kentucky Derby, but when he had Gallant Man on the Derby trail, he started him off in a six-furlong allowance race at Tropical Park, in which he equaled the track record of 1:09 3/5, and then won the six-furlong Hibiscus Stakes at Hialeah. Of course we all know Gallant Man was beaten a nose in the Derby when Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line.

I first got on my soapbox in 2016 when two Derby hopefuls, champion Nyquist and Exaggerator, both deviated from the norm by debuting in a sprint, the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, in which they finished first and second, respectively. Three months later they finished first and second in the Kentucky Derby in the same order. History once again prevailed, even if only briefly.

Trainers then returned to their normal routine of running in one two-turn race after another. Of course someone had to win the Derby because they all followed the same pattern. But is it a coincidence that eight of the last 11 Derby winners did not win another race after the Triple Crown, seven did not win a race after the Derby at 3, and six never won another race, period, after the Derby. Not running in a sprint to start the year obviously had nothing to do with that ... or did it? I have no idea. But it is a rather alarming statistic that Derby winners keep disappearing year after year.

Now, four years after Nyquist we have another trainer who will be reopening the history books, as Bob Baffert has decided to bypass the 1 1/16-mile Los Alamitos Futurity with his grade 1 winner Eight Rings, an eight-length winner of the American Pharoah Stakes, and wait for the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, where he will attempt the emulate Nyquist and all those before him. One of those was the Baffert-trained Silver Charm, who also debuted in the San Vicente. As Baffert said, "I'm going to freshen him up and start sprinting like Silver Charm."

I believe it would enhance the Derby trail if trainers had enough confidence in their horses and themselves and weren't prisoners of the point system. Instead, they are afraid to "waste" a race that offers no points and focus more on accumulating them wherever they can, even in January and February. That is called training to get to the Derby rather than training to win the Derby.

Of course, Churchill Downs could start awarding points to several of the major sprint stakes and not be afraid that some rogue sprinter is going to infiltrate the Derby field. Even if a sprinter did win the San Vicente or Hutcheson or Swale or Pasco Stakes, they would still have to be able to stretch out to two turns and run well in the major Derby preps. The Derby has had sprinters before and in some cases they made the race even better by ensuring an honest pace.

Would Secretariat have broken the track record if Shecky Greene wasn't in the race, setting a brisk pace and hanging tough on the far turn when challenged by Sham? Probably, but you never know. Big Red certainly was helped by him, running dead last early.

A cheap sprinter named Ocean Roar, who had been sprinting at Beulah Park and Thistledown in Ohio, set an honest pace for a classic finish in 1969 when Majestic Prince narrowly defeated Arts and Letters and the stone closer Dike.

Having sprinters in the Derby also would motivate trainers to try to teach their confirmed frontrunners to settle off the pace and show more versatility. Perhaps that would enable them to keep their form longer and not be susceptible to other speed horses.

By attempting to eliminate horses with sprinting speed from the Derby, we have now gone 18 years without a horse even remotely threatening to break the two-minute mark. In the past 11 years only two horses have even broken the 2:02 mark and one of those was Nyquist, who debuted in a sprint. The other was I'll Have Another who benefited from the scorching :45 1/5 half set by Bodemeister.

We need speed in the Derby or we're going to have horses winning most every year in 2:03 and 2:04, which were the final times of our two Triple Crown winners this decade.

Why we are trying to eliminate speed from the Derby by making sprint stakes inconsequential is beyond me. It's time to bring back the sprint stakes and restore what little bit of history we have left.

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