After Friends Lake won the Florida Derby on March 13, trainer John Kimmel faced a decision. How could he best prepare the colt to deliver a peak performance at Churchill Downs seven weeks later? The orthodox move would have been to run one of the major prep races three weeks before the Kentucky Derby.
But Kimmel reasoned that Friends Lake had won in Florida off a long layoff, and that he could do it again in Kentucky. Declaring that Friends Lake would enter the Derby after a seven-week absence from competition, he uttered a sentiment that has preceded the defeat of many a good horse on the first Saturday in May. "I don't care what history says," Kimmel declared. "I know all about that stuff. I also know my horse and the best way to get him ready."
History says the layoff is too long. The last horse who went directly from the Florida Derby to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs was Needles in 1956. Since that year, every Kentucky Derby winner has had a prep race within four weeks of the main event. In the last decade, 18 horses — including some highly regarded contenders — have tried to win after a layoff of more than 28 days. One of them managed to finish third.
The history of the Kentucky Derby abounds with lessons about the right and wrong methods of preparation; the 28-day-prep-race guideline is just one of them. Yet every year successful, thoughtful trainers ignore the evidence. As many as one-third of the hopefuls for Saturday's race are defying important historical precedents.
Most contemporary trainers prefer to campaign top-class horses sparingly, with ample time between races. They would rather do too little with a horse than too much, and in most cases this is a sound philosophy. But the historical lessons associated with the Derby reinforce the premise that doing too little with a horse is usually a mistake.
Of course, the campaigns of all horses — including Derby contenders — have changed in the last decade or two. American thoroughbreds used to undertake rigorous campaigns that are unimaginable today. The entrants in the 1960 Kentucky Derby had made an average of 20 starts apiece before they came to Churchill Downs; almost all had a prep race within nine days of the race. By contrast, only one horse in Saturday's field has run as many as 10 times and most had their last prep race three weeks ago. But even though modern horses have lighter schedules than their ancestors, a would-be Derby winner still must do enough to be fit for the stress of the race and the challenge of going 11/4 miles for the first time in his career:
- He must have raced within the last 28 days.
- He must have raced as a 2-year-old. Otherwise, he is trying to cram too much preparation into too short a time. The last horse who won the Derby without 2-year-old experience was Apollo in 1882.
- He ought to have made at least three starts as a 3-year-old. The only Derby winner in the last half century who broke this rule was Sunny Halo in 1983. Among those who tried and failed in recent years were Point Given (2001), Lemon Drop Kid (1999) and Victory Gallop (1998); all of them subsequently won a race in the Triple Crown series, suggesting that they may have lost the Derby because they didn't have enough preparation.
- He ought to have made at least five career starts. Even though horses are coming into the Derby with shorter and shorter campaigns, and both Fusaichi Pegasus and Grindstone won after five races, no horses with four or fewer starts has won since Exterminator in 1918.
Why do trainers so often violate such clear-cut guidelines?
In some cases, they are victims of circumstance. Michael Dickinson knows Derby history, and he had laid out a textbook campaign for his Tapit this season. But the colt's schedule was disrupted by physical problems, and so he will go into Saturday's race with only two starts as a 3-year-old.
In some cases, trainers can't resist the lure of the Derby even when a horse is too unseasoned to have a realistic chance. Rock Hard Ten displayed enormous potential when he won his racing debut at Santa Anita Feb. 7, and trainer Jason Orman inadvisably put him on a fast track to Churchill Downs. If the colt gets into the Derby field (he's currently third on the waiting list), he'll have to win with only three previous career starts and no 2-year-old experience.
But the main reason that so many 3-year-olds come into the Derby with insufficient seasoning is the prevailing philosophy that horses should be "fresh" for big races. Half of the field in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic had been absent from competition for more than 28 days before the race. Some trainers don't acknowledge that the Derby is a unique race with unique requirements.
Read the Footnotes had been considered the top horse of his generation until he gave a poor showing in the Florida Derby and lost to Friends Lake. Trainer Rick Violette decided almost immediately to forgo a further prep race and to bring his horse into the Derby off a seven-week layoff. "Seven weeks, in this day and age, is almost perfect timing," he told the Daily Racing Form. It may be perfect in other circumstances, but not in the Derby, which annually verifies the maxim that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.