You can never get bored handicapping the Kentucky Derby, because every year is completely different. Getting down to 20 horses that enter the gates means that we watch hundreds of horses through the winter and spring. Some years we see horses dominate. Other years, like this year, horses take turns winning key races. In 2015, for example, I knew for months that only two horses mattered, and the only challenge was ordering Dortmund and American Pharoah. This year, on the other hand, there are as many as 17 horses that you could make at least something of a case for in this race, so narrowing it down to a manageable list is a much tougher challenge. Hopefully a look back at some historical Kentucky Derby trends will help provide clarity:
Five or fewer starts
This isn't nearly as powerful a trend as it once was, but it is certainly still worth a look. From 1933 to 2007 just three horses won the Kentucky Derby with five or fewer previous starts. Since then, though, we have seen three more - Big Brown in 2008 and Animal Kingdom in 2012 each had four prior starts, and American Pharoah had started five times. It's just a reality of the times that we are going to see more lightly-raced runners. Trainers are just more likely to baby their colts now - American Pharoah was one of 11 colts in the field with less than six starts. This year we don't quite reach those heights, but there is still plenty of inexperience. Patch is the rawest of runners, with just three career starts. Girvin, Battle of Midway, Battalion Runner, and Malagacy, who has the points to compete and hasn't been ruled out as I write this but is seen as unlikely, all have four career starts. And Irish War Cry, Always Dreaming and McCraken - all colts that should be within the Top 5 betting picks - have five starts. Five starts concerns me a whole lot less than fewer than five, so it's no surprise that I like the horses with five starts but have a lot of doubts about each of the less-experienced ones.
The Curse of Apollo
Few Kentucky Derby winners get talked about any more than Apollo. That's striking since no one has been alive to tell the first-hand tale of the 1882 Derby for a very long time, and it's not like you can just pull the race up on YouTube to refresh your memory. Apollo is remembered for another reason entirely. He had not run a race as a two year old. Since then no other colt has been able to repeat the feat.
All thoroughbreds have their birthday on Jan. 1 regardless of when they were actually born, so this means that since 1883 every single Derby winner has run in the calendar year before their win. The reasons for the dominance of this trend are logical - horses that didn't run young have less depth of fitness, less experience handling adversity, and there is probably a good reason or three why they didn't go to the track early. And it has been a dominant trend - 50 horses have tried and failed in the last 61 years alone.
This year there are at least two colts looking to end Apollo's reign of terror. Patch ran for the first time on Jan. 15, and Battle of Midway debuted on the 21st. Malagacy, who is more likely out than in as we discussed earlier, also has issues on this front as his debut came on Jan. 4. Each of these horses got a late start on their careers. They have a lot of catching up to do, and historically they haven't had enough time to do it.
Fewer than three races at three
This is another trend that has gone through a reversal as the approach to training young horses has evolved. From 1933 to 2007 only six horses won the Derby after having won two or fewer prep races as a three year old. Since 2008, though, Big Brown, Mine That Bird, Super Saver, Animal Kingdom, I'll Have Another and American Pharoah have all raced one or two times at three. That's six of nine - which effectively shatters the trend. For what it's worth, Classic Empire, Thunder Snow, Practical Joke, Fast and Accurate, McCraken and Battalion Runner all have just two races this year.
No prep race win
There are six big prep races - the Santa Anita, Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana Derbies, and the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes. Each race has at least two local prep races. And then there are other races like the series at Tampa Bay, the Sunland Derby, the UAE Derby, and others - and that's all just after the New Year. And now there are prep races in Japan - though those aren't relevant this year. With so many races to choose from, it's not surprising that the strong majority of horses have won a spring prep race before the Derby. Only 11 colts since 1980 have won the Derby without winning one of those races. This year's group of non-winners this spring include Practical Joke, State of Honor, Battle of Midway, Patch, Untrapped and Lookin at Lee.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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