When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, experience factors right up near the top of the list of things I consider when deciding to back a horse or not. It's right alongside breeding and the connections - with actual performance a step behind. Horses really struggle to overcome less-than-ideal amounts of experience when it comes to this race. There are two main Kentucky Derby experience factors that we have to focus on in particular:
The Curse of Apollo
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Apollo was the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1882. Remember that one? All thoroughbreds have their birthday on Jan. 1 regardless of when they were actually born, and Apollo had not run for the first time until after that date. He never ran as a two-year-old, which makes his accomplishment that much more impressive. Why does that matter now? Well, simply because Apollo was the last to pull off that feat. In the last 61 years we have seen 50 horses who didn't run at two run in the Derby, and none of them have won. Twenty of those have been in the last 25 years. There have been some very impressive horses among that group as well - none more so than Curlin, who won the Preakness just two weeks later and went on to be one of the all-time greats. There isn't a bigger knock than this in the Derby, and after not being something we needed to worry about last year it factors into the race in a significant way this year.
Patch ran his first race on Jan. 15, and Battle of Midway six days later. Both horses are confirmed entrants with history going against them. As I write this, Malgacy is unconfirmed. He has the points, but I would be surprised if he entered. His first race was on Jan. 4. Cloud Computing, who is expected to give up his spot in the field, is the really raw horse here - he didn't run for the first time until Feb. 11.
Now, it doesn't mean that a horse is bad if he doesn't run at two. Arrogate didn't run for the first time until April of last year when he was three, but all he has done since is turn into one of the greatest of all time. And Bayern flopped in the Derby facing this curse and then won the Breeders' Cup Classic that fall. It's just a lot to overcome right at this moment.
The five-start barrier
This isn't quite the historical hurdle that it once was thanks to Derby winners like Big Brown and Animal Kingdom, but as a general rule it's tougher to like a horse who has started less than five times than it is one who has more experience. Big Brown was obviously exceptional, and Animal Kingdom went on to prove he was as well, but for most horses - especially mortal ones like the group this year - more is just better.
This year we have four or five horses that are a concern here. Girvin, Battle of Midway, Battalion Runner and Malagacy all have four career starts, and Patch has entered the gate just three times.
So, why do these experience factors matter? Three reasons above all else:
Adversity: Unless you have been to the Kentucky Derby in person you can have no sense of the spectacle it is. There are 160,000 very drunk fans that ave been at the track since the morning, and the race happens in the early evening. There is incredible amounts of pent up energy unleashed towards those horses. It's complete chaos - unlike anything they have seen before. On top of having to deal with that, the horses are also running further than they ever have before and doing it in a field that is as much as twice as big as they have seen before. The Derby winner typically isn't the one who avoids trouble or distractions. It's the horse who handles them best. The more races a horse has run, the more adversity he has faced, and the more experience he has with dealing with it. It's easier to overcome something when it doesn't catch you off guard. It's like a rookie QB in the NFL. They don't look lousy early on in most cases because they can't play. They look lousy because they don't have the repetitions that slow things down and allow them to do what they are capable of.
Conditioning: You hear it in all sports - a guy can train as much as he wants, but the only way for him to really get ready for games is to play in them. You can't recreate the real thing. All of these more raw horses are well-trained, but they are lacking the depth of preparation that comes from going to battle more times and enduring what that throws at them.
Why?: Most of these horses were very expensive to purchase or breed, and they are very expensive to train as well. Even the richest trainer doesn't view them as a charity. So they like to have them out running, earning money, and hopefully improving their future value. You have to wonder, then, why a horse is held off the track longer than most or given more breaks than most. It isn't done out of the kindness of the connections. It's done for a good reason. They were too immature, or developed too slowly, or were injured, or couldn't stay sound, or wouldn't listen to their rider, or whatever else. You have to wonder, then, if they are past all of that and have caught up to the crowd now.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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