by Trevor Whenham - 05/09/2006
When Barbaro enters the gate for the 2006 Preakness, he will be vying to become the 11th horse since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978 to win the Preakness after taking home the Kentucky Derby. Each of the previous 10 double winners have captured the imaginations of racing fans and, in many cases, the general public, but all ten have fallen short at the Belmont. Barbaro may be the horse to break the Belmont curse, but he has to get there first. To see if Barbaro has what it takes to win the Preakness, it only makes sense to compare him to the other 10 horses since 1979 which have come through in the same situation.
When Spectacular Bid won the first two races in 1979, the Triple Crown had just been won for two consecutive years, so the accomplishment was viewed as no big deal. People had been spoiled and forgotten how hard it is to win a Triple Crown. Pleasant Colony won both races again in 1981, but then there was a six year break before Alysheba in 1987 and Sunday Silence in 1989. Silver Charm started a streak in 1997. Bob Baffert trained his second consecutive double winner, Real Quiet, in 1998, and then Charismatic did it for D. Wayne Lukas in 1999. Baffert was back in 2002 with War Emblem, followed by the incredibly popular gelding Funny Cide the next year, and the equally well-loved Smarty Jones in 2004. How does Barbaro compare to those ten racing legends?
Jockey - Edgar Prado had never won a Kentucky Derby before Saturday, but his inexperience may not be a problem. Of the previous ten double-winning jockeys, only Gary Stevens had previously won a Derby. The other nine jocks were first timers. It stretches back even further, too - both Seattle Slew and Affirmed had pilots that fit the criteria. Prado is inexperienced as a Derby winner, but according to form I should be more worried if he had experience.
Trainer - Michael Matz won the Derby with Barbaro in his first try at the race. That's a remarkable achievement, but it's not news anymore. He was the fourth consecutive first timer to wear roses. Of the double winners, there is no decided profile of experience with the Triple Crown. Tagg, Servis, Van Berg, Campo, Delp and Baffert in 1997 were trainers with little or no previous Triple Crown experience. Matz' inexperience on the biggest stage appears to be neither an asset nor a liability.
Breeding - Of the last six double winners, five of them had Mr. Prospector in their pedigree within three generations. Guess who's invited to Barbaro's family reunion? Mr. Prospector is a grandsire on the dam side. The greatest double winner of all time, Northern Dancer, shows up in the pedigree of an incredible number of Classic runners, but he is nowhere to be found in Barbaro's family tree. That isn't necessarily a problem. Northern Dancer appeared in three of the last six double winner's pedigrees, but was absent in the other three.
Dosage - The dosage index is a number derived from the sire influences in a horse's pedigree. It is a key indicator of the ability of a horse to succeed at the Classic distances. A dosage number under 4 is seen as a near-necessity for winning the Derby. Barbaro's 1.81 is ideal, as are the dosage numbers of eight of the ten double winners. There have only been four horses with dosages over 4 to win the Derby. Improbably, two of them, Real Quiet and Charismatic, are recent double winners.
Running Style - Barbaro settled just off the pace, letting the race develop until he was ready to pounce. Nine of the double winners ran some variation of the same race in their Derby victory. Only War Emblem differed, breaking away on the lead and never looking back.
Time and Margin of Victory - Derby times for the double winners have run from 2:01.1 for Funny Cide to 2:05 on a muddy track for Sunday Silence. Barbaro's time of 2:01.2 is certainly comparable, especially considering he could have been quite a bit faster if Prado had needed to use the whip. The biggest margin of victory of the ten winners is the four lengths War Emblem won by, so Barbaro's 6 ½ lengths falls outside the group. Interpret that as you will, especially since the gap could have been twice as much with the whip.
Two year old Campaign - Barbaro didn't run in a graded stakes race as a juvenile. Conventional wisdom says that that is a problem, but five of the last seven double winners have also started their career out slowly. Only Real Quiet and Silver Charm entered the big leagues at two.
Layoff - The unbreakable rule with nearly 50 years of proof has been that a horse can't compete at the Derby coming off a break of five or more weeks. Barbaro became the first horse since Needles in 1956 to break the rule, winning the Derby five weeks after the Florida Derby. Needles slipped to second in the Preakness, but climbed back up to the top of the podium in the Belmont. Obviously, no double winner has come off a break this long, so there is no way, based on past history, to tell how Barbaro will react. Barbaro has never run back in less than five weeks in his career, further muddying the picture.
Undefeated - Like Smarty Jones, Barbaro will enter the Preakness undefeated. Smarty Jones won, as did Majestic Prince in 1969 and Seattle Slew in 1977, the last two horses in the same situation.
So what do we know? Barbaro seems to be fast enough, bred well enough, prepared well enough and handled with enough competence to give him a very good chance in the Preakness on March 20. Nothing's guaranteed, of course, but those of us who like to spend their time dreaming of Triple Crown glory can safely keep dreaming.