With the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) being run on Sept 5 this year you would think we would have a firm grasp on who the leading contenders are, but for various reasons-one, of course, being the pandemic-we really don't know who these 3-year-olds are?
Tiz the Law and Honor A. P. clearly are the two best 3-year-olds in the country and both have superstar potential. But the truth is, Tiz the Law, who for some reason seems like a hardened veteran, will go into the Derby having only four starts in the last nine months. Honor A. P., who we know mainly from watching his works all year on XBTV, will go into the Derby having only three starts in eight months, the last one to be run at 1 1/16 miles. Not exactly your typical final Derby prep.
Yet, when you look past these two horses, there is, for lack of a better phrase, a mish mash of horses who have proven little in major stakes and shown little consistency or winning ways. For example, the July 18 Haskell Invitational (G1) looks like it's going to be an interesting and competitive race, but of the nine probable starters and two or three possible starters, not one is coming off a victory.
In my last rankings of the 3-year-olds, I was so desperate I ranked a Japanese horse No. 3 and, of course, he made me look foolish in his next start, stretching out in distance and showing nothing.
I have been ranking Derby horses for Daily Racing Form and Blood-Horse since 1992 and have to admit I don't have a clue what I'm doing this year, as there is so little separation among the contenders after the top two and such a wide gap between No. 2 and No. 3. At least I think there is.
I say I think, because as I mentioned earlier, I still have not seen the top two face a deep field and what would be considered stiff competition, for the simple reason that there is no stiff competition. But I do believe both these horses have superstar potential if they go on to race next year.
I admit I am looking at all this through a rear view mirror, as I remember when horses went into the Derby having run five or six times in four months at a time when the Derby Trial was run four days before the Derby, the Blue Grass nine days before the Derby, and the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby two weeks before the Derby. In 1967 the Gotham and Wood Memorial were run one week apart. Hialeah's 3-year-old program consisted of the six-furlong Hibiscus Stakes, seven-furlong Bahamas, 1 1/8-mile Everglades, and 1 1/8-mile Flamingo. And when Hialeah closed you had the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes, 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth, and 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. That is seven preps in Florida alone, not counting the two-turn Miami Beach Handicap and Dade Metropolitan at Tropical Park before Hialeah opened. Santa Anita also had a 3-year-old program increasing in distance with each race-the six-furlong Los Feliz Stakes, seven-furlong San Vicente, one mile San Jacinto, 1 1/16-mile San Felipe and the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. And there was also the 1 1/8-mile Hollywood Derby.
Back then almost every 3-year-old started off the year in a sprint. One week before the Derby, Churchill Downs ran the seven-furlong Stepping Stone Purse, which attracted horses such as the undefeated Majestic Prince following his romp in the Santa Anita Derby, Swaps, Sword Dancer, Tom Rolfe, Sir Gaylord, Never Bend, and Derby winner Cannonade. When the Derby Trial was in fashion, Calumet's Triple Crown winners Citation and Whirlaway ran in it on Tuesday, worked a half-mile on Thursday, and won the Derby on Saturday.
Yes, I know times have changed, I'm living in the past, and horses run far fewer times, but it is still good once in a while to look back at the way it was for history's sake and what horses were capable of. And, oh, yes, the vast majority of those horses went on to long careers, racing at 4 and 5, and weren't retired after their 3-year-old campaigns or after the Belmont Stakes (G1).
To run in the Derby off a five-week layoff was virtually unheard of. Carry Back won the Derby having run 21 times as a 2-year-old and then seven times as a 3-year-old before the Derby. That didn't stop him from winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown and going on to have a long and lucrative career, making 61 starts, in spite of his roguish owner and trainer Jack Price, who even took him to France to run in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (G1).
Another rogue, John Campo, ran the plucky little Jim French in 10 stakes at five different tracks in a little over four months going into the Derby. After running in two stakes at Tropical Park, Jim French ran in the Hibiscus, Bahamas, Everglades, and Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah, flew up to New York for the Bay Shore Stakes, then back down to Florida one week later for the Florida Derby, then to California a week later for the Santa Anita Derby, which he won, then back to New York for the Wood Memorial. Despite this insane schedule, Jim French finished a fast-closing second to Canonero II in the Derby, third in Canonero's record-breaking Preakness Stakes (G1), and a fast-closing second in the Belmont Stakes, beaten only three-quarters of a length.
By early July after winning the Dwyer Handicap, Jim French had run in 16 stakes at 10 different racetracks from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles in a period of less than seven months, while making two trips to California, and was never worse than fourth other than when he was disqualified from second to fifth in the Everglades Stakes.
There are many other stories of iron horses that you rarely see anymore, at least not at the highest level of competition. Today, Price and Campo would have been vilified and accused of cruelty to animals, but back then it was more a part of the game, and those trainers got away with it because their horses stood up to it and remarkably maintained their form throughout. I got into racing in 1967, and the first horse I saw break down was Ruffian eight years later. That's what made it such a shock.
I sort of deviated from the original path of this column, but I wanted to infuse a little history as a comparison to the sport today and how we really never get to know who these horses are, which makes it more difficult to embrace them, at least over a period of time.
It would have been understandable retiring Zenyatta after her emotion-packed victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), but her connections kept her in training at age 6, where her popularity soared to new heights to the point where hundreds of fans waited in the cold and snow at Keeneland at night just to get a quick glimpse of her and hopefully touch her as she paraded around sales walking ring before heading to Lane's End Farm. They had gotten to know her and had grown to worship her, as fans had done with Seabiscuit, Kelso, John Henry, and Forego, among other warriors throughout history who raced for a number of years. We all embraced Secretariat and worshiped him for his larger than life persona, and his amazing feats. But did we really get to know him? What would have been in store for us had he raced at 4? We can only imagine and dream.
For now, all we can do is enjoy horses like Tiz the Law and Honor A. P. for as long as we can and then move on to the next ones, all the time hoping one will come along who we really get to know and can embrace over a period of time.