Runners, Take Your Mark By Evan Hammonds


 (Originally published in the February 5, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds
In another place and time, discussions about the upcoming Triple Crown preps centered on numbers—dosage index, center of distribution, and being weighted within 10 pounds of the highweight on the Experimental Free Handicap. These days, discussions about the upcoming Triple Crown preps center on a different set of numbers: graded stakes earnings and the number of starts 3-year-olds will make prior to the first Saturday in May.

Most of what many horsemen have held true about bringing a classic hopeful up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) with a solid foundation through a steady progression of races has been dispelled over the past several years.

Last May eight of the 20 starters in the Derby came into the race with only two starts on their résumés for the year. While everyone will recall the winner, Super Saver, was among those elite eight, so too, were Awesome Act and Backtalk, the 19th-place and 20th-place finishers.

Two years ago Mine That Bird was a double dipper, and the year before that, six 3-year-olds came to the Derby with two sophomore starts under their belts. Yes, Big Brown won the Derby, but Monba finished last.

It’s definitely a trend. Five years ago only two Derby entrants had only two starts at 3. Ten years ago it was two: Express Tour, having had one start in Dubai; and Point Given, the heavy favorite who finished fifth. Two decades ago Best Pal came to the Derby off two starts at 3, but the big gelding did leave the starting gate eight times at 2 to provide enough “bottom” to withstand the rigors of the Triple Crown campaign.

Now to the topic of graded earnings. The top 20 contenders ranked by graded stakes earnings make the Derby field. It’s a simple concept, and everybody should know the rules by now.

Last year’s benchmark for making the field was around $250,000, and this year—should many top finishers remain healthy and in training—the bar could be even higher.

Want to make the gate? Get out there and run.

With trainers opting to send their runners out fewer times, that applies more heat to make those starts count, leaving little room for error. Running your horses more often is the best way to create your own Derby destiny. It was good enough for guys such as Lukas, Whittingham, Stephens, Barrera, and the Jones boys.

From now to the April 30 The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III), there are 27 graded races from which to choose, and every trail to Louisville has a series of preps: New York to Florida to Louisiana to Kentucky to Arkansas to California and even New Mexico.

Runners, take your mark.

Just as coach Jimmy Dugan (portrayed by Tom Hanks) in the ’90s film “A League of Their Own” told his team, “There’s no crying in baseball,” there should be no crying from horsemen with a Derby prospect sitting at No. 20-something come the last week in April.

One More Number

Before we get too far removed from the importance of the Experimental, its main function today appears to be historical perspective. In the modern era of Thoroughbred racing—since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971—only four colts have been weighted above the standard 126 pounds on the scale: Horse of the Year Secretariat at 129 pounds in 1972; Devil’s Bag at 128 in 1983; Arazi at 130 in 1991; and Horse of the Year Favorite Trick in 1997.

Add Uncle Mo to that short list with the 128-pound assignment he received for his unbeaten 2010 campaign.

And, yes, trainer Todd Pletcher has mapped out a two-race prep series for the champion prior to this year’s Derby.

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