Has any horse—aside from Regret—won a Kentucky Derby without winning an earlier 3-year-old race of any kind? Yes indeed. Sir Barton (1919) used the Derby to break his maiden, and just three years ago Gato Del Sol won after losing his four previous 1982 starts. Also, several pre-Derby starts don't seem to affect a really good horse. Before being put into the starting gate in 1958, Calumet Farm's Tim Tarn had run a remarkable 10 races that spring.
But times and trainers have changed, and looking for a winner in the '80s is a whole different horse race than it was back in the '50s. In its April 25, 1984 issue, The Thoroughbred Record presented an interesting study of Derby winners from 1950 to '83, which showed that in the '50s horses ran an average of 5.7 races leading up to America's gaudiest animal act. The five winners in the '80s have averaged only 3.2 pre-Derby starts, reflecting a major change in attitude by trainers. The last three Triple Crown winners, Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat, had four, three and three pre-Derby starts, respectively. In many regards Seattle Slew's inexperience entering the Kentucky Derby was remarkable. He had only six career starts before the Derby, two fewer than War Admiral and three fewer than Gallant Fox. By the way, the next time anyone tells you that the Kentucky Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May and the Preakness is two weeks later, tell them about Sir Barton, who won the Derby on May 10, 1919, four days before the running of the Preakness. Gallant Fox won the Preakness on May 9, 1930, and used that race as his prep for the Derby, which was run eight days later. Hoop Jr. won the Derby in 1945 on the second Saturday in June, because of restrictions invoked during World War II.
The list below reveals the number of pre-Derby races of the 11 Triple Crown winners and also suggests that many conditioning strategies have merit:
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Because of the vast media coverage of the Derby, many people assume that the winner is automatically the nation's top 3-year-old. Myth, all myth. The American Racing Manual shows that since championships were made official in 1936, only 19 of the 49 3-year-old champions were Derby winners, and seven of those had to be because they were also Triple Crown winners.
Strange trends have helped make the Derby a fascinating, if unpredictable, event. For instance, in the eight runnings of the race from 1972 to '79, six betting favorites won, while the other two finished second. Unlike the '80s, the '70s seem to have been filled with excellent runners. You could almost bet the farm that the top 2-year-old of one December would show up in the Churchill Downs' winner's circle the following May. It seemed almost rigged. And in 1978 the top-ranked 2-year-olds of the previous year, Affirmed, Alydar and Believe It, ran one-two-three in the Derby. Then the picture changed drastically (see chart page 10).
Last year's Derby crop seemed to be rich with promise because the top graduating 2-year-olds looked special. Devil's Bag was the hot winter book Derby favorite off his undefeated 2-year-old record of five very fast victories. He won his first start in 1984 before running fourth in the Flamingo. He never won another major race, and his final appearance was a ho-hum victory in the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs a week before the Derby. His disappointing performance caused his owners to withdraw him. He was sent to stud with his image vastly tarnished. Fourth-ranked Dr. Carter caught a virus not long after running second in the Florida Derby to Swale and didn't run again until Christmas Eve. Fali Time, the third-best male of this crop, got to the Derby but was bothered during the running of it by Gate Dancer; the stewards awarded him fourth money. During the summer, however, Fali Time got a bacterial infection and nearly died. He hasn't won a race since. Swale, rated behind only Devil's Bag as a 2-year-old, won the Derby and the Belmont Stakes but died suddenly after a morning workout on June 17. Althea, the champion among 1983's fillies, won the $500,000 Arkansas Derby and was sent off as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. She ran 19th in the 20-horse field, never won another race and was retired last fall.
This year seems to have started out in the same strange fashion. Top-ranked Chiefs Crown went to Florida as the 2-year-old champion and contracted a cough. Second-ranked Saratoga Six, who broke a leg at two, was sent to stud. No. 3, the undefeated Smile, had arthroscopic surgery for bone chips in both knees, and Spend A Buck, also third-ranked, is recovering from arthroscopic surgery for bone chips as well. Two of this spring's most highly regarded Derby hopefuls, Proud Truth and Rhoman Rule, were not even ranked as 2-year-olds.
But there will be a Kentucky Derby on May 4. Some 130,000 people will bet, drink, sit, stand, squat or lie down in that empty hour that precedes the race, and then 20 or so horses will show up and parade nervously on the track. Most of the folks at Churchill Downs and those watching on TV in homes and bars around the country will appear to be happy about the whole thing. In other words, no—ah—regrets.