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.


Leave a Comment:


It really concerns me that trainers don't run their horses more than they do.  Uncle Mo does not seem to have the foundation to go 1 1/4 miles with only 2 races at 3 years old.  He could probably get 1 1/4 miles, but will they kill him to do it.  Even if he wins the derby, he won't win the Belmont.  Breeders to are blame also.  They keep turning out these nice 2 year olds who have not hope at winning the Triple Crown.  It seems that as long as they can win just one of the Triple Crown races, they will be a stud.  As we have seen, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Super Saver might buck the trend, because he has the pedigree and the owners who will send top mares to him.  I would rather breed to a Belmont winner as they tend to throw more stamina.  I don't intend to put Uncle Mo in my wagers.  He simply has to do more than what he has done.  1 1/16th miles is a good start, but I wonder if he simply was more talented than the other BC 2 year olds.  

01 Feb 2011 3:13 PM

I seriously wish trainers would stop acting like their thoroughbreds are made of glass. All they are doing are compounding the problem, and making weaker racehorses. Breeding has something to do with it but most of it is with how they are being trained. I hope Uncle Mo finishes poorly in the Derby to show that two starts beforehand is not the best idea. He will never be able to withstand the Triple Crown with the way Todd Pletcher is training him. What ever happened to five weeks being too long between races? People need to stop making excuses for why racehorses today are running fewer and fewer races and DO something about it. Don't just accept it as the natural progression of the thoroughbred. It's times like these that push me to become a trainer instead of a jockey.

01 Feb 2011 4:06 PM

Can't help but get the feeling Uncle Mo will be among those who didn't live up to the billing.  To do meet the hype he's got to win the TC undefeated.

Too bad these horses are treated like such snowflakes to their detriment.  Going into the toughest race of their lives not very green and barely tested does the sport and the horses disservice.

But with they fanfare given to Zenyatta who followed this running style - averaging less than 6 starts a year - there will be more of this non-racing race horses, not less.

01 Feb 2011 5:05 PM

Horses are not "snowflakes" as the path to a two year old in training sale will testify to, and they are rarely treated as such, but every pimple and bit of heat is attended to and so a race goes by. A horse has only so much race in them, save it, pour it on when necessary and take care of all the parts. Uncle Mo will be just fine.

01 Feb 2011 6:20 PM

Great comments Kristen, thank you! You have said it all for everyone!

01 Feb 2011 9:41 PM

Thanks for the info, Evan. I'll second (or third) Kirsten's remarks. I've thought for some time that it is trainers who are making the largest contribution to the fragility of the breed; not necessarily the breeders and/or stallions.  

02 Feb 2011 8:48 AM

Perhaps the reason fewer and fewer starts prior to the Derby seems to be working is that it has become the norm--if the majority of horses entered in the Derby have only a few starts, then of course the Derby winners will be horses with very little racing experience.  It doesn't mean the method works better than the "old days", when 2-year-olds commonly ran as many as 10 or more races, came back to run in 3-4 Derby preps, and made it through the entire TC series.  It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the BC Juvenile winner has only once come back to win the Derby--these horses have no foundation and no ability to stand up to the pressure of training and racing, because they aren't subjected to the type of training and preparation that strengthens and toughens them up.  For decades it didn't seem to hurt horses to run every 2-3 weeks, what has changed?  Is the breed regressing?  

Very sad, and also a reason fans are leaving--they too rarely get to watch any horses they like.

02 Feb 2011 9:38 AM

:\ Zenyatta is a big mare and everyone says the bigger the horse the more stress racing puts on their legs/joints so I think it was in the Mosses' best interest to space out her races to keep her sound. Sure she averaged six starts a year for three years but she also ran at the highest levels through the age of six. Practically no big-name (intact) racehorses stay on the track for that long.

Plus, this isn't even about Zenyatta, who was almost four when she made her first start. We're talking about horses that just turned "three" who are all being pointed towards a mile-and-a-quarter race in early May. Everyone's clamoring for a Triple Crown winner but nobody ever trains for one - the goal is the Kentucky Derby and then the horse is usually too spent to run/win the Preakness and/or the Belmont. What's the point of a Triple Crown then? I'd like to see more 3YOs knocking heads earlier on in more races; could shore up more interest, in my opinion.

02 Feb 2011 9:56 AM
Pedigree Ann

Karen, the concept that a horse "only has so much race in them" is another of those recent notions that has no evidence to back it up. A properly conditioned horse is capable of so much more than they are allowed to do today. Racing in prep races is part of conditioning, allowing bones and muscles to remodel for the next stage. Winning is not always necessary during the preps; the goal is to have the horse in optimum condition on the big day. How much sense does it make to bring a horse into the toughest race of its life off of a layoff (which is what 6-8 weeks is)? It's no wonder that even if they win the Derby they can't finish off the Triple Crown; they aren't fit enough for it.

By the way, many horses at the lower levels - regional stakes,  allowance race, overnight races, claiming races - run more often than the 'elite' stakes horses. You can find them running every couple weeks during their campaign; they might then take a month or two off at some point, then they are back at the wars. Trainers of expensive stud prospects are afraid to run their charges for fear they will lose and reduce their stud value. It's such a shame that the breeding industry is destroying the sport it feeds on.

02 Feb 2011 10:04 AM

If none of them have a bottom then what difference does it make? It's an Even playing field.

We used to have trainers that got their horses really fit and knew how to keep them that way. Remember Sunny Jim who trained Nashua, Bold Ruler, etc., Hirsch Jacobs horses ran for the money only to get fitter, and so it was. Tom Ivers started an effort to really train using sportmedicine techniques as done for human athletes but it took too much time. It seems as though the trainers/owners have decided upon genetics and luck to get a good horse, as most train the same. Of course we also have the drug/medication culture superimposed upon the whole training regime.

02 Feb 2011 10:21 AM

I remember not too long ago, actually a year before the turn of the century, there was an athletic chestnut colt, who needed some six races as a three year old before capturing the 1999 Kentucky Derby at 31-1, his name is Charismatic. If my memory serves me correctly this horse was for sale in a $50,000 claimer early in his career. I remember being at Bay Meadows Racecourse in 1999 watching the El Camino Real Derby. I believe the favorite was a horse by the name of Cliquot, ridden by David Flores and trained by John Shireffs, his odds were 8/5. Charismatic was sent off at odds of 9-1. I remember as they turned for home Cliqout, the speed, had the race in hand, so it seemed. You know how Trevor Denman sometimes makes this call, "and they will have to sprout wings to catch him." This is what this race was shaping into at the sixteenth pole. But out of nowhere, a long striding chestnut came roaring down the stretch. Yes, it was the #3 horse, Charismatic, and he was absolutely flying. I couldn't believe my eyeballs. I quickly glanced down in my hand and saw the $10 win tag on the three that was crumbled in my hand. For a brief moment, I thought I might be holding a winner. With every stride he was gaining. Leaning on the rail, I could hear him charging down the speed-ladened Bay Meadows strip. Cliqout was asked to re-kick but he was stuck in cruise control still going well. As they hit the wire Cliquot got his head down first and Charismatic, valiant in defeat, blew by his victor after the wire and galloped out very strong. Little did I know that day, I was watching a future Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner.

There is a recent trend that suggests that perhaps two preps is the way to go. Especially being that the last four Derby winners fall under this category. But for me I prefer a Derby horse who gets at least 3, and even 4 or 5 is fine by me. Alot of times these young horses need time to work out the kinks. For some it's working the gangliness out of them. For others it may be about working out the mental kinks rather than physical. For example, if you look at a horse like Charismatic, he was one who preferred to run every two weeks, opposed to four or five. After a lackluster performance in the Santa Anita Derby, trainer D. Wayne Lukas , shipped him out to Kentucky for the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, a race he ended up winning. This was a spring board into the Derby for him, where the rest is history. I'll never forget that of all the DRF Analyst's who made picks that day, there was only one of them who selected the Derby Winner, Charismatic. His name Steve Klein.            

02 Feb 2011 12:40 PM

Oh how far we've come from the days when horses ran in the Derby Trial and ran back in the Derby a week later! Lots of trainers sitting out there with their cold-water hoses (no Bute back then, remember?)and their Absorbine and other topicals. I have to wonder whether today's trends to fewer races are because trainers are afraid their horses aren't made of the same tough-stuff today or because the horses really aren't. I do know that if we want to create new fans for the sport, its stars have to be out there long enough for folks to fall in love with them. Just look at Zenyatta. She was a fantastic racehorse - but what really built her terrific following was the length of time she was out there. California probably had the most followers because they were the ones who could go see her most often, but the whole North America embraced her because she ran year after year. Her soundness is well-proven and her face is almost a household image. She's the kind of proven horse we want producing future racehorses, who hopefully will also go out and run enough to build up their fanclubs. We need to remember that first and foremost they're RACE-horses, not sales horses or breeding stock. If we can get 'em running more often, maybe they'll come back to being the tough, durable heroes they used to be and go on to make more of the same.

02 Feb 2011 3:25 PM
Michael B.

I am in the camp that thinks that the worst thing that Pletcher can do is to have only two preps before the Derby.  That would be especially true with a horse whose pedigree suggests he might have trouble getting 10 furlongs.  The way to get him to the Derby would appear to be get him started early and get at least two 9-furlong preps into him, even if he happens to get beat in one.  (Remember that Secretariat lost his last pre-Derby race, the Wood Memorial.)  Why would a sound, lightly-raced horse need a 4-month break anyway?  If I had a dollar for every promising two-year-old who was put away for an extended break because the trainer wanted "a fresh horse," and either didn't come back at all, got hurt in his first start back, or completely lost his form, I could BUY Uncle Mo!  Remember Declan's Moon from a few years ago?  He ran lights out as a two-year-old, was given an extended break instead of starting early as a three-year-old, got hurt in his first start at 3, and was never the same again.

02 Feb 2011 6:10 PM

I agree with Nancy, and disagree with all other posters...Splits of 12- funny you should offer Charismatic as example for your point in that lengthly post. Interesting that you failed to mention Charismatic's fate in The Belmont, and the fact that his racing career ended there...I have followed Racing for 50 years, and while the avg. # starts/yr has steadily decreased I much doubt that this is due to a lesser sound athlete. I also don't believe that perceived residual stud value, for example, plays much a part in this today. Fact is, very, very few-barely little more than a handful/yr.- have much stud value. Rather, I feel it more likely that the top horses of days gone by were overraced-many of their owners were sportsmen who were less motivated by the bottom line, and also, perhaps, less attuned to the nuances of injury. Yes, even today the lesser talented horses tend to run more. Why?-there are several reasons, such as: with less talent, they tend to run slower (all else equal, less taxing--many times the better are better because they try harder); having less talent they tend to earn less causing their owners/trainers to be motivated to run them more often. The end result is an even greater eventual breakdown rate...In a sense, the well-being of the racehorse may have slightly improved today-certainly still far from enough. I can remember well, and will offer two quick examples of my first point.-Back in 1966 Graustark was undefeated and by Blue Grass Stakes time was the overwhelming favorite to win the Derby (Buckpasser had already fallen by the wayside due to a quarter crack). Graustark was entered in the Blue Grass-the prohibitive favorite- but a day or so prior to the running developed a problem. They ran him anyway, and during the race he fractured his coffin, lost by a nose, and never ran again. A year later, 1967, the great Buckpasser was due to meet Dr. Fager and Damascus in the epic Woodward Stakes-billed as The Race Of The Century, which indeed (due to its field) it, in retrospect, was. It has been since been documented (and was suspected during the week leading up to that race) that Buckpasser was "off"-but they ran him nevertheless. He ran 2nd that day, but was trounced by Damascus. It was to be Buckpasser's final race-likely would have been injury or not. Both horses, Graustark and Buckpasser, were entered, and ran, in part as sporting gestures. Their owners took a chance. I didn't agree then, nor do I now with their reasoning, but it was more commonly practiced then. I offer this merely as example. Then also, there were no "rag" figures or things of that sort to aid trainers in their assessment of their trainees. Much has changed since then, not the least of which is a proliferation of state-bred races to the exclusion of others, which makes "finding" a suitable prep race ever more difficult. There are many variables involved in this lower starts/yr. stat. One should not conclude too quickly that the cause lies with a less sound breed, or overmedication, etc. Lastly, don't be so sure that racing can accomplish what mere training cannot. One need not look further than the careers of many Europeans through the years. So, all else equal, the top horses of today are better served then they were back then-and for me, this is an acceptable trade-off to watching them compete less often.              

05 Feb 2011 12:23 AM
Pedigree Ann

One can always find examples that back up one's own opinions. Take your example of Buckpasser. His people took him off the Derby trail so that his hoof could heal; they didn't patch him together and still try to make the race. And he rewarded them with 10 more wins at 3 in most of the best races in the US, including vs his elders. He was a horse who raced more times at 2 (11 times) than some 'top' horses race in their lifetimes these days.

This was another of the old-time training maxims: run them when they are fit, give them time off when they hurt. Fit horses don't need a lot of work between races if the races are close enough together. Spacing races by 6-8 weeks means the horses never are fully fit and that they never have time off; they are always coming off of a layoff. The race you refer to for Buckpasser was at the autumn of his 4yo year, when he was already going to be retired at the end of the season anyway, as you say. He hadn't been as dominant at four as he had at 3 and he was facing two of the finest 3yos ever seen. I don't see how running him in any way damaged the horse or his reputation, so what is the point?

One cannot compare the Euro training methods with US track-based methods. Trainers have their own stable blocks (owned or rented), and the horses are walked and trotted to the gallops, for which the trainer pays fees to train on, which are usually several miles away. The horses train in groups, frequently uphill, then walked/trotted home again. Every horse who is not injured or ill goes out every day for at least light exercise under saddle. They get fitter under this regimen than US horses do with 15 minutes a day on the track.

And the Brits often run horses close together; during the 5 days of Royal Ascot, it is not unusual for horses to run and run well in two events. These horses run drug-free, also.  

08 Feb 2011 12:28 PM

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