Every class of three year olds is completely unique. That is just one of the many things that makes handicapping the Kentucky Derby so difficult. Over the years, though, trends have emerged that have helped us narrow the field down to find more likely winners. These trends aren't ironclad guarantees, and there are exceptions to each, but lately they have proven more likely to point out a winner or not. This year's field is muddled - no great horses but lots that could potentially be good enough to win - so hopefully these four trends can help us find a bit of clarity:
Fewer than six career starts
This trend isn't nearly as strong lately as it once was. Between 1933 and 2007 we saw just three horses win the Derby after previously running less than six times. That's powerful - you could basically eliminate those runners that are short on experience. It makes sense, too - horses lacking race experience don't have a depth of racing fitness to draw on, and they haven't faced adversity that they have had to overcome so they won't be ready for the adversity that is inevitable at the Derby. Since 2007, though, we have seen three horses win with less than six prior starts. Big Brown in 2008 and Animal Kingdom had both run four times, and American Pharoah was making his sixth career start in the Derby last year. Still, five of the last eight winners, and all but six since 1933, have run six or more times before the first Saturday in May. Still a pretty powerful trend. This is a surprisingly experienced field this year. Last year 11 of the 20 qualified horses in the field had fewer than six starts. This year there are just six. Outwork, Shagaf and My Man Sam have each run just four times, and Gun Runner, Destin and Danzig Candy each have five prior starts. Personally I have concerns about all six horses, and their lack of experience certainly does nothing to ease those concerns.
The Curse of Apollo
This is one of the most dominant and long-lasting trends in all of sports. Unfortunately it doesn't help us out this year. Apollo won the Kentucky Derby in 1882. All horses have a birthday on Jan. 1 regardless of when they were born. Apollo had not run a race as a two year old - he made his racing debut in early 1882. Since then - 134 years and counting - no horse has won the Derby without racing at least once as a two year old. Unfortunately for us - and fortunately for the horses involved - there are no horses that are entered here without a race at two. In fact, all but three have multiple two year old starts. The only one who was even close to missing out was My Man Sam, who made his only two year old start on Dec. 19. This powerful curse is mostly about maturity in my eyes. Horses learn and grow from racing. They learn what they need to do, what they can't do, and they learn how to deal with other horses and outside factors like the crowd, the track conditions and so on. The later a horse starts racing the fewer chances they have had to race and the shorter the time they have had to internalize the lessons learned. These inexperienced horses can catch up later in the year, but in early May this race has proved too much to ask.
Fewer than three races as a three year old
We have actually seen an interesting reversal here. Between 1933 and 2007 we saw just six horses win the Derby off of two or fewer starts as a three year old - after Jan. 1 of that year, in other words. Since then, though, Big Brown, Mine That Bird, Super Saver, Animal Kingdom, I'll Have Another and American Pharoah all came into the Derby with just two three year old prep outings. So, that means that three-quarters of the last eight winners have raced just twice. Are we seeing a reversal of what it takes to win here or just a blip? Your guess is as good as mine. There are four horses coming in off of two prep races this year - likely favorite Nyquist, Gun Runner, Lani, and Brody's Cause.
No prep race win
There are six big prep races leading up to the Derby - the Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Santa Anita Derbies, and the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass. Each of those has a series of two prep races leading up to them in the spring. And there are a few other significant prep races outside of those series - like the Tampa Bay Derby or the UAE Derby. Most of the press and the betting attention understandably focuses on the horses that won one of the six major preps and those that had scores in the prep races leading up to them. Since 1980, though, we have seen 11 different horses win the Derby without winning a single one of the spring prep races. These are the late-developing horses that have been competitive enough to get into the field, and are now ready to peak and run their best race. Will we see a 12th this year in this wide-open field? Whitmore, Tom's Ready, My Man Sam, Majesto, and Trojan Nation - who has never won a race of any kind - are all hoping so.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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