This is an odd Kentucky Derby field in so many ways. There are a lot of intriguing horses, but none - with the possible exception of Nyquist if you are more optimistic than me - that seem to be on the road to superstardom. There is certainly no American Pharoah here, and the number of horses that seem to be potentially exceptional is fewer than in most years. On the other hand, though, the level of talent doesn't drop off nearly as steeply this year as most years. The top three horses aren't as strong as most years, but the 16th horse in the field this year is much more competitive than that level of horse is most years.
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Another factor that makes this year reasonably unique is that the field is not as inexperienced as some have been in recent years. Only three horses have run fewer than five races - Outwork, Shagaf and My Man Sam have each run four times. The Curse of Apollo is a trend dating back all the way to 1882. That was the year that Apollo won the Derby, and he was the last horse to win the race without at least one start as a two year old. All thoroughbred horses celebrate their birthday on Jan. 1 regardless of when they were actually born, so that means that every winner in the last 134 years has run at least once in the calendar year before his Derby victory. This year every single horse has at least one two year old race to their credit, some have as many as six, and all but those three horses with just four career starts started at least twice at two. Any horse running in May of their three year old year is inexperienced by definition, but these horses have a relatively impressive level of experience in terms relative to recent years.
Experience is a massive factor in the Kentucky Derby. It's right up there with breeding as the biggest key to success in this race. But why? Why does it matter if a horse has experience as a two year old? Why am I much happier when a horse has raced seven or eight times than four or five? There are a lot of reasons, but three stand out above the rest:
The Kentucky Derby is really a ridiculous race. These horses are being asked to run further than any has and further than many are truly capable of running at a high level. They are running in a 20-horse field - the only time all year that we'll see a race that big in North America. That means a lot of things - it is going to be very tough to get the rail or to get the position you really want; contact is almost guaranteed, and a clear and safe trip is extremely rare; even if you do get where you want to be, your path to the front and the finish line might not be open for you. And then there is the pace. Early fractions are almost always fast - and usually too fast. Horses have to deal with that and still find their way to the finish line. And there is the crowd, too - it's not just the biggest by far at any race all year, but there are two or three times as many people there as there are at the average NFL game. And those people have been there all day and are several mint juleps into their afternoon, so they are rowdy. Add it all up and these horses are going to see things and be asked to do things that they have never done before. Some horses are naturally going to be better at that than others. The more a horse has run, though, the more new things they have seen, the more adversity they have faced, and hopefully the more prepared they will be to overcome the adversity here.
Hockey or basketball players will tell you that they can practice all they want, but they can't truly come back from an injury until they get into game action and develop their game fitness. It's the same in racing. You can train and do all the works you want, but you get conditioned in a race in ways that you just can't get anywhere else. The more a horse has raced, and the longer they have been racing, the deeper their base of fitness and the more they can draw on when the going inevitably gets tough in the Derby.
Why'd he wait?
These horses were typically very expensive to purchase. Training costs thousands of dollars a month. They typically travel longer distances by air, and you can imagine what that costs. Owners have a major investment in these horses before they start, and they need to be racing to try to recoup those costs and make a profit. Even the richest owner has no interest in losing money on horses. If a horse is talented enough to make the Kentucky Derby then there was money for them to make as a two year old. So, if they weren't racing at all at two, or they weren't racing much, you really have to wonder why. Were they injured? Were they slow to mature? Was their talent just not enough? Were they tough to work with in ways that could come back to haunt them in the crazy Derby environment?
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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