By Nicole Sauer
Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse that was unraced at age 2 gone on to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). The famed "Curse of Apollo" will be put to the test once again this year, this time by Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner Hoppertunity. Many argue that the right horse just hasn't come along yet, and it's only a matter of time until the curse is broken. But others are adamant that the maturity gained during a 2-year-old campaign is essential for a Derby victory.
The charts below compare horses that raced at 2 with those that did not and their subsequent performance in 3-year-old graded stakes from 1973-2013. During this period, 73% of graded stakes starters raced at age 2, while 27% were unraced as 2-year-olds. If "having a 2-year-old foundation" is important for graded stakes performance at 3, then we should expect a higher proportion of 3-year-old graded stakes winners to have raced at 2. This is the case, but only by a 2.2% margin: 75% of 3-year-old graded stakes winners raced at 2 compared to 25% who didn't.
Isolating only the Kentucky Derby starters, horses that raced at 2 also have a slight advantage. Though 8.4% of all Kentucky Derby starters since 1973 were unraced at 2, only 6.5% of in-the-money finishers were unraced at 2. This 1.9% differential again suggests a slight disadvantage for 3-year-olds lacking a 2-year-old foundation.
While it seems that whether a racehorse begins its career at 2 or at 3 has only a small impact on 3-year-old graded stakes performance, the fact remains that it has been 132 years since a horse that was unraced at 2 went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
The most likely reason for Apollo's curse still holding strong is simply because there have been so few to challenge it. In the past 31 years, only 55 horses that were unraced at 2 even competed in the Derby. Since 2000, horses without a 2-year-old start have finished second (Bodemeister, 2012), third (Curlin, 2007), fourth (Atswhatimtalknbout, 2003), and fifth (Wheelaway, 2000) in the classic. It likely is only a matter of time before Apollo's curse is broken.