CRAWFORD | Breaking down the curse that will hang over Kentucky Derby 144
Only one horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby without racing first as a 2-year-old. Two favorites in this year's Derby will try to break that losing streak.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A curse hangs over this year’s Kentucky Derby, and I’m not just talking about the new Churchill Downs parking plan.
Not since 1882 has a colt who did not race as a 2-year-old won the Derby – the only time it has happened. Two of the top three selections in the morning line for Kentucky Derby 144 – Bob Baffert’s Justify and Magnum Moon, trained by Todd Pletcher – didn’t race at two, and neither has lost at three.
Something has to give.
The only colt ever to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old was Apollo, a gelding who in 1882 surprised the betting public with a late run, described as a “cyclonic rush” in the official race notes, in the final eighth of a mile to beat heavy favorite Runnymede by half a length.
Those were different times, then. The Twin Spires wouldn’t be constructed for a dozen years. The Derby race itself was run on a Tuesday, with the Oaks to follow a couple of days later. The distance was 1 ½ miles, instead of the current 1 ¼ miles. One of the colts in the race didn't even have a name -- they just referred to him as "the Malloy colt."
One New York owner got so mad that he couldn’t get bookmakers to book his bets that he threatened not to come back the next year. Pari-mutuel wagering was more than two decades away. As it was, this was the first Derby for which odds were quoted. Runnymede went off at 4-5; Apollo at 10-1. The minimum bet was $5. Apollo paid $169.80 to win, and took home a winner’s purse of $4,560.
And a place in history.
For much of the Kentucky Derby’s history, not running at age 2 would’ve been unthinkable, unless a health problem intervened. What racehorses did was race. Within 10 years, Azra, winner of the Derby in 1892, had raced 10 times at age 2, and Lookout, the winner of the Derby the next year, raced 20 ties at 2.
From 1944 to present, 61 horses have tried to win the Derby without a race as a 2-year-old. All have failed. Only eight have finished in the money, including Battle of Midway last year, and the last favorite to not win the race – Bodemeister in 2012.
That favorite, unraced at 2, was ridden by Mike Smith and trained by Baffert. Justify, unraced at 2 and ridden by Smith, also is trained by Baffert. He doesn’t want to hear about any curses.
“There’s so many other things that can go wrong that I don’t even worry about that,” Baffert said. “I think it’s changed. You go back, we don’t get in a rush with these horses anymore. There’s not that many races. In the old days, they used to run them, then you’d take a break. Now we have racing, it never ends, it’s just constant. So we just bring these horses along slowly.”
Others aren’t so sure. As the sport has changed over the past two decades, so has the conventional wisdom. Bill Mott said, “I used to think you had to bring a horse in here several weeks before the Derby, get the horse settled in, get him to the track, to have a chance. Then Barclay Tagg brought one in 2-3 days before and won, and all that changed.”
With the Derby, training rules were made to be broken. Workout regimens have changed. Breeding formulas. For a while, all we talked about was bloodlines and “dosage.” They used to say you had to win a race at two to win the Derby. Then Barbaro came along.
Dale Romans said that conventional wisdom is falling by the wayside pretty often these days when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. At the same time, you have to respect 136 years of history.
“It seems like everything that we used to fear in Kentucky Derby history has gone down, so why not that?” Romans said. “But if Curlin couldn’t do it, it’s going to be hard for anybody to do it.”
Mott said there’s good reason for that. It’s not just that running a race at age 2 gives a thoroughbred some seasoning. Mott said the recovery time can help them mature. He thinks there’s something to that history.
“If you believe in statistics you believe in it,” he said. “I definitely think there’s something to it. Even if a horse has one race as a 2-year-old, and have that time, I think actually the time after the race is probably as important as the race at two. You have to let them regroup a little bit after their first race or two. I think any horse that’s had a couple of races early on, then had a little time to develop and grow, they really benefit from it.”
Pletcher says it’s only a matter of time until the curse ends.
“The trend is a lot different now than it was however many years you want to go back,” he said. “Horses just don’t run as many times leading into the Derby as they used to. Ultimately, at some point, talent will prevail. . . . With Magnum Moon and Justify, a lot of people are going to question if they have enough seasoning. There’s only one way to find out.”
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