Defying long-held beliefs about how to win the Derby, trainers are preparing top contenders in unorthodox ways
ONE YEAR ago trainer Michael Matz ignored Kentucky Derby tradition by sending a good horse to Churchill Downs after having not raced him in the previous five weeks. This is not done, Matz was told repeatedly; no horse in half a century had won the Derby after a five-week layoff.
The wailing persisted until Barbaro rolled to victory by 6 1/2 lengths, the widest margin in 60 years. Recalling the criticism, Matz said last week, "I guess [my judgment] wasn't so bad after all."
The Kentucky Derby has been run 132 times, accumulating along the way a list of unwritten rules on how to prepare a horse for a trip to the winner's circle. Once these rules were treated as religion, but no longer. U.S. horse racing has changed dramatically: Horses are less durable and bred for speed; trainers are not beholden to history. Many of the old axioms will be tested when this year's Derby is run on May 5.
Rule 1: Derby contenders must race at age 2.
The last Derby winner unraced at 2 was Apollo in 1882. Last Saturday, Curlin, whose first race was in February, stormed to a 10 1/2-length victory in the Arkansas Derby in just his third start. Curlin has won those races by an aggregate 28 1/2 lengths, and his triumph last Saturday at Oaklawn Park was reminiscent of the dominant performance in the same race by 2004 Derby winner Smarty Jones.
Rule 2: Derby contenders must run at least three prep races.
The last horse to race just twice as a 3-year-old before winning the Derby was Sunny's Halo in 1983. This year at least five probable Derby starters will come to Louisville with only two starts as 3-year-olds. Among the most intriguing is Dominican, who covered the final eighth of a mile in a scorching 11.51 seconds (albeit off a doddering pace) to win a Blue Grass in which the top four finishers were separated by just a neck. Trained by former quarter horse rider Darrin Miller and prepped for the Derby season in Springfield, Ky., on owners Tommy and Bonnie Hamilton's Polytrack training track (the same synthetic surface on which the gelding has won both his preps), Dominican emerged as a Derby challenger with his Blue Grass win after being far off the radar.
Rule 3: Derby contenders can't sit out more than four weeks before the big race.
Barbaro, the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win after more than four weeks off, trashed this axiom a year ago. Trainers this spring are pushing the envelope again. Scat Daddy, winner of the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby (and one of trainer Todd Pletcher's likely five strong entries), will come in after five weeks off. Hard Spun, winner of the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 24, will have had a six-week layoff. Pletcher's Circular Quay will have been off for eight weeks after winning the March 10 Louisiana Derby (the second of his two prep races). "I've always had more success running a horse later than sooner," says Pletcher.
Rule 4: Derby contenders need to work over the Churchill Downs surface.
This year at least eight likely entrants will be stabled 80 miles away at Keeneland and train over its forgiving Polytrack surface. Trainer Barclay Tagg will ship in Wood Memorial winner Nobiz Like Showbiz from New York, and John Shirreffs will do likewise with Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago from California. Using that approach, Tagg won the 2003 Derby with Funny Cide and Shirreffs in 2005 with Giacomo.
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End of an Era?
The last Kentucky Derby run without a horse trained by Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas or Nick Zito was in 1980. Those three men have had 78 starters and nine winners. But this year, none of them has yet found a 3-year-old good enough to make the Derby field.
Derby winners: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet ('98), War Emblem (2002)
Best horse this year: Air Commander (second in San Felipe Stakes)
D. WAYNE LUKAS
Derby winners: Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch ('95), Grindstone ('96), Charismatic ('99)
Best horse this year: Flying First Class (sixth in Arkansas Derby)
Derby winners: Strike the Gold (1991), Go for Gin ('94)
Best horse this year: Boogie Boggs (fifth in Florida Derby)