Perhaps it was the freakishly warm weather that had people behaving like hibernating critters that come back up out of the ground too early. Two people in the past month have asked me, “So, who is your Derby horse?” Now, this is an annual tradition around Kentucky, where the countdown to the next Kentucky Derby starts as soon as the trophy is handed out on the veranda over the Churchill Downs infield. Yet I was as dumbfounded at the second asking as I’d been on the first. I have no idea who my Derby horse is. And for two good reasons.
First, it’s clear that this is one of those years where the crop of sophomores is just going to take turns beating up on one another. And, secondly, we barely get to see these 3-year-olds race anymore.
Check out our feature story on page 32 of the March 11 issue of The BloodHorse documenting the Derby prep season of 1957, where the top five horses continually faced each other throughout the early months, racing as much as 10 times before the Derby. As recently as 1990, the Kentucky Derby field averaged 4.33 starts pre-Derby as 3-year-olds. By 2015, Derby starters were averaging 2.82 starts from January 1 until Derby Day. That number dipped as low as 2.68 in 2012. Street Sense, Big Brown, Mine That Bird, Super Saver, Animal Kingdom, I’ll Have Another, American Pharoah, and Nyquist started just twice as sophomores before winning the roses.
This year Mastery has yet to start as a 3-year-old. Practical Joke just made his first start March 4; Gunnevera, his second on the same day. Classic Empire, Gormley, American Anthem, and Tapwrit have started once this season.
How am I supposed to know my Derby horse when they don’t show up under silks? Nowadays we have to base our opinions not on how these horses run in races but by how they look when we watch their workouts on social media. As the old ad goes, that’s no way to run an airline.
The past two years we’ve had the benefit of dominant horses who stood as benchmarks against which all others could be judged. American Pharoah was lightly raced because he was coming back from an injury, but his reputation was well established and he further burnished it as soon as he hit the track at 3. Nyquist had been champion 2-year-old and didn’t take a backward step before the Derby. Although many underestimated him, they got to see him blow the doors off East Coast hope Mohaymen because of a $1 million bonus on offer for winning the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby (G1). There are no such comparables available this time around. It’s a revolving door issuing forth a series of horses, none of whom seem capable of winning two races in a row, even if they were to actually run as many as two races in a row.
What the 3-year-old division needs is the participation of fillies. Songbird last year and Unique Bella this season would have given us sizzle, a reference point, and a lively debate. It can’t be ignored that it’s been the distaffers such as Beholder, Songbird, Tepin, and Lady Eli that have carried racing as much, or more, as American Pharoah, California Chrome, and Arrogate the past few years. That’s not a criticism of the owners that choose to keep their fillies sequestered; it’s just an observation of what would help us delineate among our 3-year-olds.
Now we’re just two months out from the big day. So, who’s my Derby horse? Probably something coming out of California. I don’t know its name yet. I’ll figure it out standing next to Bob Baffert at the gap Derby week at Churchill Downs watching his horses train.
You got a better idea?