Disqualifier for Kentucky Derby? One Streak Has Stood Test of Time

Racing
Bodemeister, inside, is one of 14 horses since 2000 who was unable to overcome the "Curse of Apollo" in the Kentucky Derby. I'll Have Another caught Bodemeister in the stretch of the 2012 Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Recent years have turned Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands history upside down, except for one standard that has stood the test of time. The streak lives on of 134 consecutive Derby winners who raced at least once as a 2-year-old.

Previously, that streak dating back to 1882 Kentucky Derby hero Apollo was just one part of a veritable rulebook for glory on the first Saturday in May. Before the annals began to shift in 2003, statistics might have had you believe that in order to win the Derby you could not:

  • Be a gelding (more than 70 years between winners until Funny Cide in 2003, and Mine That Bird followed in 2009);
  • Have raced less than five times overall (never until Big Brown in 2008 and then Animal Kingdom in 2011) and less than three times as a 3-year-old (for more than two decades until Street Sense in 2007);
  • Have been a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner or champion 2-year-old male (again, until Street Sense became the first Juvenile winner ever to take the Derby and the first champion 2-year-old male to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979);
  • Lack previous experience in a dirt race (never until Animal Kingdom);
  • Have final prep race more than four weeks out from the Derby (Barbaro, in 2006, became the first horse since Needles in 1956 to win the Derby with five weeks or more rest);
  • And, of course, the most well-known drought lived beyond the Derby in the 37-year famine for sweeping the Triple Crown, from 1978 until American Pharoah’s breakthrough in 2015.

Some of those streaks were statistically insignificant and probably more minutia than anything. But as Derby “rules” have fallen, the list of horses who have come up short trying to break the “Curse of Apollo” has grown to carry some serious weight from the likes of Curlin (a Hall of Famer and two-time Horse of the Year), Summer Bird (a champion 3-year-old male), and Bodemeister, who carried the lead into the stretch as the favorite in 2012, only to be caught late by I’ll Have Another and finish second.

In all, 59 horses with no racing experience as 2-year-olds have tried and failed in the Derby since Apollo prevailed in the eighth edition, which actually was contested on the third Tuesday in May. According to statistics from Churchill Downs, only seven of the 59 have managed to hit the board, including Bodemeister and Curlin (third in Street Sense’s Derby in 2007). Since 2000, 14 horses with no racing experience as 2-year-olds have competed in the Derby.

Lukas (Eclipse Sportswire)

D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer, has started a record 48 horses in the Derby and is tied for second on the all-time list with four winners. Every one of Lukas’s Derby runners raced at 2 years old. 

“I think there is something to that streak,” Lukas said. “I don’t think you can disregard it as a factor. I will say that it’s not totally imperative; I wouldn’t consider it a disqualifier. Two-year-old racing, to me, is important because of the seasoning and getting that development into them, but if I had a 3-year-old coming on late, I would never hesitate to point him for the Derby if I thought he had the talent. They’ve come close before; who is to say one won’t be good enough and catch the right field to break that streak. Experience is important in a race like the Derby, but talent is the main thing.”

Jerry Brown, publisher of the Thoro-Graph performance figures, pointed to 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, who debuted on Dec. 11, less than three weeks before he turned 3 years old.

“So did those three weeks make all the difference?” Brown asked. “That’s hard to believe. I think it could happen; it’s just really hard. It’s a disadvantage. You’re asking them to do an awful lot of developing in a short amount of time if they debut in January. That’s four months to the Derby, rather than, for instance, eight months if a horse debuts in September. It’s not really about experience, it’s about being far enough along to be good enough to win at a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May. That development usually takes some time; it’s just really hard to compress it all within four or five months and then not have any setbacks along the way. And then you have to be good enough on that day. Curlin was good enough — he had been before and he was afterward — just not that day."

In beating Curlin in 2007, it was Street Sense who got the ball rolling for the latest Derby trend. Street Sense was the first Derby winner since 1983 (and only the second since 1947) with just two prep races as a 3-year-old. He opened the floodgates for the two-prep plan, which has now produced eight of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners. Last year, Nyquist, also following in Street Sense’s footsteps as a champion 2-year-old male and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, succeeded as one of four horses in the Derby field with two 3-year-olds preps. Of the other three, Gun Runner finished third.

Nafzger with Unbridled. (Anne Eberhardt/Blood-Horse)

“I wasn’t looking to break the mold when we came up with that plan for Street Sense,” said Hall of Fame trainer Carl Nafzger, who also conquered the Derby in 1990 with Unbridled. “To me, it was all about what my horse needed to be ready for the Derby. Unbridled needed four races, Street Sense needed two. I also ran Vicar, and he had four preps but didn’t do so well in the Derby. It just depends on your horse and coming up with a plan, like you would for any other race. Street Sense had run five times as a 2-year-old and met the best horses in the country twice, in the Juvenile and also in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, so I had seasoning, I had route experience. What I needed to do was fill his tank back up but be fit enough on the big day.

“Yeah, I won the Derby with Unbridled, but he was short [on conditioning] in the Belmont, and it cost him. I learned a lot from that. With Street Sense, if I could get him fit and have his timing right, I knew he’d only need two preps. You have to know what is best for your horse, first and foremost."

Nafzger is retired now but he is a regular presence at the barn of his protégé, trainer Ian Wilkes, who has one of the top 2-year-olds of 2016 in McCraken, the undefeated winner of the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last month at Churchill Downs.

“I can’t stay away from the barn, that’s just me, so I have seen the horse train quite a bit,” Nafzger said. “He’s a very nice horse, very talented. Like Unbridled, he’s kind of like a lap puppy. He is full of himself, but he really likes people. He is full of quality.”

Lukas ran third in the Kentucky Jockey Club with Warrior’s Club, who has now shifted to Oaklawn Park for the winter along with Blame Will, the winner of a sprint allowance on the same Churchill card. Typical of Lukas, they both raced seven times as 2-year-olds.

“I’ve also got a couple others that I will let earn their stripes, but we are stretching a little bit,” Lukas said. “We are going to have to improve.”

Chasing Apollo

Kentucky Derby ledger since 2000 of horses who did not race as 2-year-olds.

Horse

Year

Finish

Materiality

2015

6th

Verrazano

2013

14th

Bodemeister

2012

2nd

Midnight Interlude

2011

16th

Summer Bird

2009

6th

Dunkirk

2009

11th

Curlin

2007

3rd

Showing Up

2006

6th

Greeley’s Galaxy

2005

11th

Song of the Sword

2004

11th

Atswhatimtalknbout

2003

4th

Wheelaway

2000

5th

Curule

2000

7th

Trippi

2000

11th

Jeff Lowe writes for America’s Best Racing and is the media director for Team Valor International. He previously was the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup beat writer for Thoroughbred Times.

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