California Chrome, above winning the Santa Anita Derby, was not as accomplished as many of his peers as a 2-year-old but he emerged as the leading Kentucky Derby contender this spring. (Benoit & Associates Photo)
The Road to the Kentucky Derby came to an end last Saturday, finishing pretty much like it began.
In the case of the Lexington Stakes, the final race in the Road to the Kentucky Derby, it’s understandable. With the race contested on Keeneland Race Course’s synthetic Polytrack surface just two weeks before the Derby, it made all the sense in the world that the victorious Mr Speaker would not have the opening leg of the Triple Crown on his agenda.
As for Cleburne, who won the Iroquois, he serves as yet another example of the diminishing impact 2-year-old racing has had on the Triple Crown. He was last seen finishing a well-beaten third earlier this month in the Calder Derby, his first race since his triumph in the Iroquois some seven months earlier.
Cleburne might prove to be a useful runner in graded stakes down the road, but for now, with the Derby rapidly approaching, he’s no different than a long list of stakes winners at two who have played no role in the Derby in recent decades, yes, decades – a turn of events that might explain why we haven’t seen a Triple Crown winner since 1978.
Of the nine horses who won the 2-year-old stakes included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series, and gained 10 points in the scramble for one of 20 starting spots in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, only two plan to run in the Derby, and neither of them – Tapiture (Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes) and We Miss Artie (Breeders’ Futurity) – will be included among the favorites on the first Saturday in May.
The other seven include some of the brightest stars of the 2-year-old crop, like Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day, Remsen Stakes winner Honor Code and Champagne Stakes winner and Juvenile runner-up Havana. None of them is on the Triple Crown trail, and the same can be said for 2-year-old champion Shared Belief.
CHAMPION SHARED BELIEF WILL NOT START IN THE KENTUCKY DERBY
Benoit & Associates Photo
And so, this year will mark the 29th time in 30 years that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner has not captured the Derby and the number of 2-year-old champions since 1979 who have won the Derby will remain fixed at one.
Both droughts are shorter than the 36 years without a Triple Crown winner, and while these may seem like three separate streaks, there might very well be a connection. One thing the last four Triple Crown winners – Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Citation – have in common is that each of them was a 2-year-old champion.
AFFIRMED WINNING THE SANFORD STAKES AT TWO
Photo by Horsephotos.com
There might be other similarities, but it makes quite a bit of sense that a horse who is good enough to be dominant at two and can continue to be the leader of the pack at three is highly special and rather rare. Considering that only four of the last 14 2-year-old champs (including Shared Belief) have even raced in the Derby shows how deceptive 2-year-old form can be in pointing out a prospective 3-year-old star.
As a result, instead of a Kentucky Derby favorite with a strong foundation of racing, we inevitably get a horse in a great form cycle that typically cannot withstand a five-week-long stretch of three races at demanding distances against the best horses of that crop.
Against that backdrop, the prospects for a Triple Crown sweep this spring appear dim, although there’s always hope.
This year, the probable favorite for the Derby is California Chrome, who ran seven times at two. He was not anywhere near as good back then as he is now, having won the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe Stakes by a combined margin of 12 1/2 lengths in his last two starts, but at least he gained a considerable amount of seasoning in 2013 that may come in handy as the temperatures and pressure rise in the coming weeks.
In less than two months, we’ll know whether California Chrome – or anyone else – has the talent, heart and intangibles to win his next three races and become one of the sport’s all-time greats. But for now, we can be content in knowing one thing has not changed much this year.
What matters at two is inconsequential at three.