The Irrational Exuberance of Derby Fever
“If [Praetereo] had won the Blue Grass, we would be going to the Derby.” (Eclipse Sportswire)
Turf writers have long told tales of Derby fever, that unavoidable disease which renders owners of potential runners delirious with hope, more inclined to push the limit and take a chance. We ridicule those who enter the race with “no shot” and glorify those whose runners appear to have miraculously taken them there.
There’s something about this time of year that leaves the connections susceptible to heady anticipation, a sweeping moment of awareness and excitement. They realize that this horse could be any kind of runner, think the world hasn’t seen the best of him yet. The current season is no exception.
When horses whose previous marks were made on the turf jump up to win prep races over synthetic surfaces (see Animal Kingdom, Brilliant Speed), or when runners with sprinting pedigrees earn enough in shorter preps to somehow justify their presence (see Comma to the Top, The Factor), there’s no doubt owners are extremely susceptible to Derby fever. Before the race, everything’s coming up roses. After? That’s not always the case.
Everyone knows the Kentucky Derby is the most challenging race a 3-year-old can enter — and 20 horses jostling into the first turn (not to mention the race 1 1/4 mile distance) can take a permanent toll. According to Nick Kling, racing columnist for the Troy Record, from 59 horses to enter the Derby in the past three years, 17 percent came out of the race to never win again, and some of them never raced again.
Last year, American Lion (11th) and Line of David (18th) made their final starts in the Derby. Dublin (7th) finished fifth in the Preakness and didn’t run again. Awesome Act (19th) had not raced since then until a recent start in a Keeneland allowance race on the Turf; he finished ninth.
In 2009, Derby runner-up Pioneer of the Nile finished 11th in the Preakness and Dunkirk (11th that year) ran second in the Belmont. Neither raced again. In 2008, Eight Belles ran second then infamously broke down galloping out after the wire. Dennis of Cork (third), ran once more to finish second in the Belmont, and that was his final start as well.
“Eight horses out of the 59 had one or fewer starts, two more raced twice after the Derby, and there were three that raced three or four times but did absolutely nothing,” Kling said. “The bottom line is that a high percentage of Derby starters come out of the race compromised to a degree, and based on research it would be fair to postulate that horses that appear to be questionable entrants based on distance limitations in pedigree or a lack of dirt form are the ones most vulnerable to coming out of the race with a successful future career at jeopardy.”
Jack Wolf of Starlight Stables is no stranger to that risk. In 2002, his operation sent out Harlan’s Holiday, winner of the Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes. The son of Harlan went off at odds of 6-1 as the longest-priced Derby favorite in the race’s history and finished seventh. Starlight also has the dubious distinction of owning two last-place Kentucky Derby finishers in partnership — Monba, who finished 20th in 2009, and Keyed Entry, who ran 20th in 2006. In 2007, they had Sam P., who finished ninth.
Wolf admits to being misled by Derby fever in the case of Keyed Entry, who went into the race after setting a track record in the Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream. There he beat the promising First Samurai going 7 1/2 furlongs in 1:27.12. Then he came back and ran second in the Grade 2 Gotham Stakes and third in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial en route to Churchill Downs.
“We had a bad case of fever there because this horse was obviously a sprinter,” the owner recalled. “We told ourselves, at the time, that after War Emblem won in 2002, if a one-turn sprinter type of horse like that could carry that speed a mile and a quarter, maybe ours could as well. That’s how we rationalized it, but if I had to do it over again, I obviously wouldn’t enter him. Looking back on it and thinking of his running style, it absolutely makes no sense.”
Coming out of the Derby, Keyed Entry ran last in the Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes at Belmont. It took a seven-month layup before he returned to the races to capture the Grade 3 Deputy Minister Handicap going 6 1/2 furlongs at Gulfstream Park, but that would be his final win. He now stands at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla.
Unlike Keyed Entry’s Derby, when Wolf said, “We entered the wrong horse for the wrong reasons,” the owner would run Monba and Sam P. again.
“Of those four I would do it again with three,” Wolf said. “Monba, with his pedigree and the way he won the Blue Grass, you rationalize that he fits. Sam P. wasn’t a speed horse; he looked like a horse that could run forever, and his pedigree suggested he would go the distance. He just wasn’t the quality to win a race like that, but I would run him again, too, because he had the earnings, he was eligible, he could go the distance, and you just can’t tell. Look at Mine That Bird. It’s just one of those things you should experience, anyway.”
Even this year, Wolf and his partners tried to make the Derby field by entering a maiden winner, Praetereo, in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The colt ran 11th in a field of 12.
“I still get Derby fever; guilty as charged,” Wolf said. “If that horse had won the Blue Grass, we would be going to the Derby. He doesn’t have any distance limitations in his pedigree. You could ask what we were thinking to enter him in that race, but if you look at the sheets and past performances, he seemed to belong from a competitive standpoint. In hindsight, he didn’t keep up with those horses, but they’ll never jump up and show you if you don’t give them a chance.”
Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable also has felt his share of Derby fever. Since 1990, the syndicate has sent out seven runners in six editions of the Derby. Summer Squall, their first starter, finished second to Unbridled. Wallenda was 13th in 1993, Smilin Singin Sam was 10th in 1994, Jack Flash was seventh in 1997, Impeachment was third and Trippi was 11th in 2000. Limehouse finished fourth in 2004.
“The Derby is the gold ring that you need to grab for if you can,” Campbell said. “I’m sure we’ve grabbed for it a few times when we shouldn’t have, but at this stage of the game you’re often not sure about a lot of the 3-year-olds, not sure if they want the distance. You certainly have it heavy on your mind as an owner with a potential contender — it’s the race the whole world knows about, the one race everybody identifies with. It would make you and your horse a part of history.”
Although Summer Squall didn’t win the Derby, he turned the tables on Unbridled in the Preakness, giving Dogwood their Triple Crown classic score.
“Not having a Derby win isn’t something I brood about,” Campbell said. “I didn’t brood very long about Summer Squall running second because if somebody had told us a year earlier that we were going to run second in the Derby, I would have been ecstatic. That in itself, just getting there, is a great accomplishment. I’d love to win it, but we don’t have ‘Derby fever’ this year; we haven’t come close to catching it even though we’ve had a good season so far.”
Campbell sympathizes with Wolf where the sprinter situation is concerned. Trippi, a son of End Sweep, wound up as a Grade I-winning sprinter who took the Vosburgh Stakes in 2000. But when he won the Grade 3 Flamingo Stakes as a Derby prep earlier in the season, Campbell said, “Off that win, hell, we had to try the Derby.”
Trippi managed to escape being ruined by the Derby. He dueled for a mile in the race and then dropped out, finishing 11th to Fusaichi Pegasus. However, he rebounded with wins in the Grade 2 Riva Ridge, the Grade 2 Tom Fool, the Vosburgh, and competed in nine more races — all at realistic distances of a mile or less.
According to Campbell, horses who have won major prep races on synthetics (like the Blue Grass) or horses with mostly turf or sprinting pedigrees should not be discounted from consideration for the Run for the Roses.
“To me, it’s not such an exact science,” he said. “If my horse won a big race on a synthetic surface, I wouldn’t let that keep me from taking the next step and going to the Derby. Strange things happen in Louisville.”
Campbell also pointed to 1987 Derby starter Groovy, who ran last but went on to be named that year’s Eclipse Award-winning sprinter.
“A lot of horses that have run terribly in the Derby have gone on to be damn good horses,” he remarked. “I think if the horse is training well and you’ve got a shot coming up, take the shot. You’d better go while the going’s good.”