Making It Up As They Go
Dialed In won the Florida Derby, a traditional prep race, but only after finishing third in an allowance against older horses. (Eclipse Sportswire)
Used to be a Kentucky Derby prospect ran through a series of logically progressing prep races, each a little longer in distance — Bay Shore to Gotham to Wood Memorial, Hutcheson to Fountain of Youth to Florida Derby, Santa Catalina (or the Robert B. Lewis, as it is now known) to San Rafael or San Felipe to Santa Anita Derby.
Used to be runners traveled far and wide to sew up their Kentucky Derby chances (the graded earnings system that determines the 20-horse field has been in place since 1986, and the race has been limited to 20 starters since 1975). Some ran in back-to-back races with ridiculously tight time spans, efforts most of today’s modern horsemen would never imagine attempting to make.
Used to be.
The field for this year’s Run for the Roses — 137 years from when Aristides won the first running of the storied classic — proves the old adage “the times, they are a-changin’.” Now the traditional “road to the Derby” is somewhat of an anomaly, as more and more trainers throw out the orthodoxy and make it up as they go.
Owners Agree …
When it comes to earning a Derby berth, the important thing is that your runner got there — not how he did it.
“Just as an observer, I think it has changed in recent times,” said Arnold Zetcher, whose Midnight Interlude is an unlikely contender after winning the Santa Anita Derby for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert off a maiden score. The lightly-raced War Chant colt has a strong turf pedigree but has only ever run on dirt in two other starts, where he finished third and second. He’s never been out of the money.
“There’s not one single path to the Derby,” Zetcher said. “Just the way things work out in this game keep it from being possible. A month ago, Bob had two contenders, then he had three, then it became one. So things happen pretty quickly, and there’s not one single path.”
Terry Finley of West Point Thoroughbreds, the group that races 3-year-old contender King Congie (he missed the Derby field by graded earnings but will start in the Preakness), believes the possibility of approaching the race from a myriad of paths only adds to its’ mystique.
“The Derby trail is certainly more diverse than it’s ever been, and like every year we’ve talked about how the picture is totally different now than it was in January or February,” he said. “But I’d suggest to you that in a lot of ways that is very, very good, because we all know the Derby is a driving force behind a lot of things in our business, and the more chances people have, the more configurations you can actually put in front of people to get here, the better.”
In the case of trainer Jeff Bonde, his colt Twice the Appeal lost his first six races and wasn’t considered a Derby contender even after breaking his maiden and winning an allowance race.
The Derby dreams didn’t come until February 26, when Twice the Appeal bulled his way to a runner-up finish in the 1 1/16-mile Turf Paradise Derby. The son of Successful Appeal was disqualified and placed fourth for interference at the sixteenth pole, but his effort led to a spot in the gate for the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby, which he upset by 1 1/2 lengths at odds of 25-1.
“He turned around when he got to Santa Anita, and when he started stretching out he was definitely more affective,” Bonde said. “He definitely was better on the dirt vs. the synthetic, and when he ran in the Derby over at Turf Paradise, he ran second, but he was finishing strong. We felt like that was a big enough reason to give him a shot, and that’s why we’re here. It absolutely gives you confidence going into the Derby to know that he can handle that surface. In my horse’s case, he’s proven he’s a good dirt horse, and that’s why we’re here.”
Bonde, 56, has trained for 38 years. In spite of his specialization in the development of younger horses, this is his first shot at the Kentucky Derby. He said the horses of yesteryear were almost a different breed from the Thoroughbreds that race today.
“A horse would race every seven to 11 days from January on to Derby week, and people just don’t run horses like that anymore,” he said. “So there’s a big change, because these horses need good spacing in between their races, and if we try to crunch them we usually pay the price.”
Runners with synthetic or turf backgrounds are predominant in this year’s Derby; of 20 horses, seven have started on both synthetic and turf tracks (Comma to the Top, Brilliant Speed, Master of Hounds, Twice the Appeal, Animal Kingdom, Santiva, and Twinspired), two have run on synthetics and dirt (Decisive Moment and Watch Me Go), and one has run on turf and dirt (Soldat).
Races like the Grade I $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland or the Grade II $500,000 Spiral Stakes at Turfway propelled some of these runners into the Derby picture; others left the turf or synthetics to claim their graded earnings in conventional races like the Florida Derby or Santa Anita Derby.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin took a non-traditional route to Soldat’s victory on dirt in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth.
“He finished second on the dirt the first two times (he raced), and we just happened to work him on the turf, and he worked great, so we ran on the turf, and he was first in the Grade 3 With Anticipation, second in the Pilgrim, and second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf,” said McLaughlin, 50. “In the back of our minds we always thought we needed to try him back on dirt, because he was second both times early and it wasn’t a far route of ground, so maybe that’s why he liked the turf so much, because it was long.”
McLaughlin was rewarded for putting the colt back on the dirt when he romped in the slop at Gulfstream on January 21 by 10 3/4 lengths. The score was an inspiration for the Fountain of Youth attempt, and although the colt then ran fifth in the Florida Derby, his trainer expects him to turn things around on Saturday.
“We were happy with the timing of the races,” McLaughlin said. “The timing was the best thing for us; five weeks, five weeks, five weeks. It couldn’t be better timing. Allowance race to the Fountain of Youth, five weeks. Fountain of Youth to the Florida Derby, five weeks. Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby, five weeks. We didn’t have to get extra graded earnings somewhere, we already had them.”
That doesn’t make handicapping the race any easier.
“Seeing some of the horses that are coming into the Derby that run good on the synthetic tracks, when I’m handicapping the Derby I put a question mark on it right away,” said trainer Kelly Breen, who saddles Pants On Fire, winner of the Grade II $1 million Louisiana Derby. “I circle the synthetic races, just saying, ‘What do you do with this?’ Maybe you credit a horse like Santiva (ninth in the Blue Grass for trainer Eddie Kenneally) more because his last race was on Polytrack, and he ran bad, so you know what, you can put a line through it.”
In 2008, Breen, 42, won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile on Turfway’s Polytrack with West Side Bernie, but the colt subsequently ran sixth over the synthetic Pro Ride surface at Santa Anita in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. As a 3-year-old, West Side Bernie ran sixth in the Lane’s End Stakes at Turfway, and in spite of a second in the Wood Memorial to nab the graded earnings, he finished ninth in the Derby.
Pants On Fire, on the other hand, made his debut on the East coast and was third in the Jan 1 Count Fleet at Aqueduct before he tackled Fair Grounds’ 3-year-old progression — the Grade 3 Lecomte, Grade 2 Risen Star, and Louisiana Derby, running a respective second, sixth, and first by a neck.
“I don’t know what to think of the synthetic tracks, but I know I’m not a fan of them,” Breen said. “I can’t figure them out; I ride my own horses, and I don’t ever say, ‘That’s a Poly horse!’ I never know which one’s going to like it, which one doesn’t. You have some of these bigger races coming off synthetic surfaces and maybe they should be worth half of what a race is worth on the dirt. Unless I had a horse that I thought could run on anything and we needed the money, I wouldn’t plan on running on it.”
That, essentially, is what a certain percentage of trainers in this year’s Derby have done. Hoping their horses are multi-surface specialists, taking advantage of earnings garnered in unconventional ways, they’re taking a shot.
“I think people are just going to try things,” said Tom Albertrani, trainer of Blue Grass winner Brilliant Speed. “When you have a horse that has a lot of talent, you’ve got to try.”
Brilliant Speed ran fourth and seventh in his first two tries on the dirt before moving to the turf, where he eventually broke his maiden — his only other win except the recent Blue Grass score.
“It’s the same as when I was training in Dubai; we ran turf horses on the dirt that won the Dubai World Cup, because when you find a horse of that talent, sometimes you have to take those risks,” said Albertrani, 53. “You’d like to try to find out before the Derby, which if I could have found out that way, maybe I would have gone that way myself, but when you know your horse has that much talent you’ve got to take your chances… and sometimes the racing gods are on your side.”
Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito would know something about that philosophizing. Bringing Florida Derby winner Dialed In to the Derby, he even took an unlikely route by dropping the colt into an allowance optional claimer off a score in the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream.
“You know, you’re given horses, and they’re gifts, horses like this that are this good, and then you’ve got to realize how to train each individual horse, and that’s how we do it,” he said.