Now that Derby No. 103 has been run, and Seattle Slew has been cheered and draped with roses in the winner's ring, it is a good time to reflect on the fate of the first-and second-place Derby finishers in the last decade. With the exception of Riva Ridge and Secretariat, who won in 1972 and 1973 and continued to perform consistently well, the first-place finishers were astounding failures. They were quickly hurt or humbled. Among them they had just 13 post-Derby wins out of 69 starts. The runners-up in America's most famous race had an almost equally dismal record—24 wins out of 106 starts.
Proud Clarion (1967), Canonero II (1971) and Bold Forbes (1976) were winners only twice after Churchill Downs. Foolish Pleasure (1975) did better, taking five of 14 races. Majestic Prince (1969) and Dust Commander (1970) had one win apiece in their 21 starts. Dancer's Image (1968) and Cannonade (1974) never won again.
"I didn't realize the record was that bad," says Jack Price, trainer of 1961 Derby winner Carry Back. "But the Derby is a spectacle, and horses race in it that don't belong. Many win that shouldn't win—they're not the best. They prep for that one race and then fall apart. What these colts were, were good animals on the first Saturday in May."
Another measurement of Derby horses is their record at stud, and they have fared as poorly off the track as on. Of recent winners, only Northern Dancer (1964) is considered a real success at stud; he was the fifth leading stallion in the U.S. last year. No other Derby winner since 1950 appeared in the top 25.
One reason why Derby colts burn out is that the Triple Crown events are run too close together and too early in the year. The races deplete the horses, consuming their talent. Britain's equivalent of the Triple Crown is spaced over 20 weeks, America's over five.
Moreover, as Trainer Horatio Luro says, "Very few trainers have a completely free hand in preparing their horses or in deciding where to enter them. The owners are running the show, and it is they who insist on putting a horse into the Derby without considering its condition or readiness." Luro trained Decidedly, who won the Derby in 1962, and Northern Dancer. He believes that horses pressed so relentlessly will either sour or break down. Undeniably, many owners enter horses in the Derby simply to bask in the limelight, to be endlessly photographed and interviewed. They do it because it means a box for six at Churchill Downs.
"I've been in racing for years, and the records of Derby horses don't shock me," says Kentucky breeder Louis Lee Haggin. "I've seen so many of these colts disappear. I think the U.S. thoroughbred needs to be crossed with fresh blood. Nearco crossed with Hyperion is supposed to be one of the greatest mixes in the world. But we've done that so often. What we need right now is a good out-cross. Nobody is trying to breed a bad horse. You know, you can run all that stuff through a computer and when you're through, you feel like throwing a rock at the computer. You never get a surefire answer. If you look back at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, you'll find that a whole lot of our good sires won one of the three races [only one. Count Fleet (1943), won all three], but the toughest is the Derby."
It is just as well Seattle Slew can't read. If he could, the record of failure might put him off his feed.