By Gary West, special to KentuckyDerby.com
Is this the year that the oldest Derby shibboleth goes down? To win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, a horse must have raced as a 2-year-old, the conditioning and foundation of that juvenile campaign being essential to spring-time success. Right?
More than just teach that lesson, history shouts it in stereo from atop the Twin Spires, writes it across the sky in dense smoke and carves it into every furlong marker on the road to Churchill Downs. Racing at 2 has become the sine qua non for winning the Kentucky Derby. Only one horse, Apollo, ever has won the Derby without having raced as a juvenile, and that was 132 years ago on an “off” track in one of the biggest upsets since David knocked out Goliath in the first round.
Since 1956, 50 horses that didn’t race as juveniles have started in the Kentucky Derby, Jon White pointed out in a recent column, and they have a strong record of futility, with only two seconds and three thirds. To put it another way, since 1956, 918 horses have run in the Derby, with 6.3 percent of those of those winning and 18.9 percent hitting “the board,” or finishing in the top 3; but of the 50 starters that didn’t race as juveniles, none won and only 10 percent even “hit the board.”
But this year’s crew of Apollo could be the strongest ever. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has two such candidates in his barn, Rebel Stakes winner Hoppertunity and unbeaten Bayern. Hoppertunity returns this weekend in the Santa Anita Derby, and Bayern is set to travel to Oaklawn Park for next week’s Arkansas Derby. Social Inclusion, who set a Gulfstream Park record in only the second start of his career, has taken his sensational show to the Big Apple and will make his stakes debut in Saturday’s Wood Memorial. And then there’s Constitution.
He proclaimed his prowess by winning the Florida Derby with a performance that was not just impressive, but admirable in every way: He learned from it, he proved tenacious down the stretch and he finished it off with a suggestion that he could step forward at Churchill Downs. And the Florida Derby was only the third start of his career.
The Gulfstream surface on Florida Derby day was somewhat unusual in that it wasn’t the speed-favoring highway it has been for much of the season. Nevertheless, Wildcat Red, the early leader, had every opportunity to win, and his failure to do so questions his ability to succeed at longer distances.
Wildcat Red shot to the lead, as expected from his inside post position, and took the field through an opening half-mile in 48.19 seconds, which was the slowest half-mile split of the day on the main track at Gulfstream. In both the Rampart Stakes and the Gulfstream Park Oaks, fillies ran the opening half in 47.67. In between, maidens went an opening half-mile 47 seconds, and in the Skip Away Stakes, at 1 3/16 miles, Sr. Quisqueyano led the way in 47.55. And those, of course, were just the two-turn races.
Any way you look at it or adjust the splits for the run to the turn, Wildcat Red was allowed to crawl through a half-mile. Not until the third quarter-mile did he have to shave 24 seconds (23.81) to maintain his advantage. So of course General a Rod couldn’t make up any ground: He deferred challenging until the second turn, where he had to race three-wide, and then he capitulated in the stretch, finishing third. And of course Cairo Prince, the 6-5 favorite who was starting for the first time in nine weeks, couldn’t make up any ground. After Wildcat Red cruised through the opening three-quarters of a mile in 1:12, Cairo Prince was fourth, racing four-wide in the second turn, two lengths back. At the wire, he was still fourth, but 3 ½ back.
Only Constitution was able to close effectively into that slow pace, making up two lengths. In fact, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 36.76 seconds, saving ground and getting through inside and then wearing down Wildcat Red through the final furlong to win by a neck. Constitution completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.16, a very solid, if unspectacular, time for the day.
Apollo notwithstanding, Constitution is within reach of a performance that just might suffice to win the Kentucky Derby. And, of course, with his Florida victory, he earned 100 qualifying points, reserving his place in the starting gate on May 3. Wildcat Red has 90 total qualifying points, General a Rod 40 and Cairo Prince, who entered the weekend as one of the Derby favorites, only 24.
Toast of New York also earned 100 points over the weekend, winning the UAE Derby in Dubai. He stalked the pace and powered home, looking strong and athletic and running the 1 3/16 miles over the synthetic surface in 1:57.92. Afterwards, Jamie Osborne, his trainer, described the handsome colt as “a freak” and, about the Derby, said, “all options are still open.”
And Vicar’s in Trouble earned 100 points Saturday. Actually, his win in the Louisiana Derby put him atop the leaderboard with 120 total points, for prior to his big win Saturday, he had won the Lecomte Stakes and finished third in the Risen Star, all at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
Most of all, the Louisiana Derby confirmed that Vicar’s in Trouble is most effective when he’s able to grab the lead early. In the Risen Star, he didn’t break sharply, and put in a catch-up position, he had to try to rally; but he flattened out in the stretch after a wide trip. In the Louisiana Derby, with Rosie Napravnik putting a cherry on top of a triumphant day that also saw her win the Fair Grounds Oaks on Untapable, Vicar’s in Trouble went to the lead immediately out of the gate.
He was challenged virtually every step of the way, or at least until he disposed of all the challenges, each in succession, and found himself clear and home-free in mid-stretch. Louies Flower tried him early, and Rise Up jumped into the fray on the backstretch and then Intense Holiday put together a threatening move in the second turn to get within a length of the leader when the field turned into the lane. But Napravnik meted out the leader’s energy perfectly so they had plenty left when the serious running commenced. On a day when the surface was rather dull, Vicar’s in Trouble led through an opening half-mile in 47.86 seconds and completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.77, winning by 3 ½ lengths.
In deep stretch, for no obvious reason, he switched strides, back to his left lead, something he also did in the Lecomte. While the erraticism might be a concern, in both cases he was clear of any threat when he switched, suggesting he did so out of boredom rather than fatigue. Still, he ran the final three-eighths of Louisiana’s derby in 38.63 seconds. And the diminutive Louisiana-bred son of Into Mischief has a sprinter’s pedigree.
Intense Holiday, who had won the Risen Star Stakes, looked like a winner again as he advanced in the second turn. But he ducked in with about three-sixteenths of a mile remaining, lost his action and suddenly gave up about three lengths. Once he got back on his right lead and resumed running, Vicar’s in Trouble was gone. Intense Holiday clearly took a step backwards here. On the other hand, Super
Saver, Mine That Bird, Street Sense, Giacomo, Funny Cide and Monarchos, just to name those since 2000, all lost in their final prep before winning the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps Intense Holiday raced too close to the pace early – he was more than two lengths back after the opening half-mile, compared to being six behind the slower pace of the Risen Star – or maybe it was purely a mental mistake. But Intense Holiday galloped out strongly, passing the winner beyond the wire, and could put everything together again in Kentucky. He has 93 qualifying points.
Albano, who had finished second in the Risen Star, ran fifth but was moved up to fourth with the disqualification of In Trouble. Albano raced wide throughout and was forced even further out by In Trouble on the backstretch. Although he finished more than 10 lengths back, Albano has 34 qualifying points, which might suffice.
Commanding Curve, who finished third, is another intriguing horse coming out of the Louisiana Derby. When Rise Up ducked in at the start, he delivered a full-body block on Commanding Curve. Last early, he finished fastest of all, running the final three-eighths in about 37.33 seconds. He galloped out strongly, too. He has only 20 qualifying points and may not have the chance to run in the Kentucky Derby, but his trainer, Dallas Stewart, was in a similar position last year with a late-running, late-developing colt named Golden Soul, who had finished fourth in the Louisiana Derby before running second, at 34-1, in the most famous of races.