Another Derby Dozen draws near and that means the same old formulated thinking and same old logic and same old historical perspectives, with only the names of the horses changing.
Uh, not so fast. That had been my thinking every year since Derby Dozen began for BloodHorse in 1999 and on Derby Watch for Daily Racing Form from 1992-1998. But it looks as if those days may be gone.
As I prepare for the latest onslaught of Derby horses and Derby performances and the same old trainer names, I have come to the stark realization that nothing is the same as it was. Gone is the old formulated thinking. Gone is the same old logic. And gone are the same old historical perspectives.
And there is one horse responsible for that. His name is Justify, and he has single-handedly made life on the Derby trail much more difficult for me. It was so easy when I could eliminate all horses who failed to start as a 2-year-old; bless you Apollo. It was so easy when I could virtually eliminate all horses who went into the Derby having only three lifetime starts. It was even easier when I could eliminate all horses who failed on both counts to meet those criteria.
Last Feb. 22, with the Derby trail in full swing and a number of strong contenders already having run in stakes, things were moving along quite smoothly. All I had to do was separate proven horses such as Good Magic, Bolt d’Oro, Catholic Boy, McKinzie, Audible, Vino Rosso, Solomini, Free Drop Billy, Avery Island, Flameaway, and Bravazo. All had Derby pedigrees, all had won stakes, and most were from top stables trained by icons Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Dale Romans, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mark Casse, and D. Wayne Lukas. Life was a breeze; you couldn’t go wrong with Hall of Fame trainers and top-quality horses like that heading the Derby trail.
When a horse came along at the end of February, winning his career debut impressively, you just casually mentioned him in Knocking on the Door as a horse to watch out for later in the year. Certainly not for the Kentucky Derby and certainly not when his trainer already had three top Derby contenders. History buffs would laugh in your face. Not even Baffert would think Derby with a horse just making his career debut at this late date, especially when he has McKinzie, Solomini, and Mourinho hot on the Derby trail. So all you can do is lament his late start for whatever reason and go back to the big names that no doubt will dominate the Derby picture on the first Saturday in May. We’ll just put this guy on the back burner and see if he can miraculously make the Belmont Stakes… but more likely he is a Travers horse.
So, then this horse wins again in allowance company, and is just as impressive. Then he does the unthinkable; he beats Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby in only his third career start, and you start thinking he’s a freak of nature, but still refuse to believe he could actually win the Kentucky Derby with virtually no racing foundation. History tells you so, and you are, after all, a student of history.
Now someone tells you this babe in the woods is not only going to run in the Kentucky Derby, but was going to win by setting the fastest fractions ever by a Derby winner, and do it on a sloppy track. Yeah, right.
Here is a horse trying to do something that had never been done, in addition to trying to do something that hadn’t been done in 136 years and something else that only one horse had done in 103 years. In summation: 1) no Derby winner had ever set fractions as fast as he would set; 2) no horse had won the Derby without starting at 2 in 136 years; 3) only one horse had won the Derby with only three lifetime starts in 103 years, and that horse had run at 2. Consider those factors, and this would be the first time in history a horse would win the Derby not having raced at 2 and going into the Derby off only three lifetime starts.
This totally implausible story concludes with Justify winning six races at six different distances on fast, sloppy, and muddy tracks and sweeping the Triple Crown just 111 days after making his career debut. To put that in proper perspective, he did in 16 weeks what it took the other 12 Triple Crown winners an average of 11 months to accomplish.
I can only think of Mr. Jensen telling Howard Beale in the movie Network, “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it!! Is that clear?!”
But in this case, we have no choice but to accept the fact that we’re entering a new world when it comes to Kentucky Derby preparation. At least we are if you believe that Justify is a pioneer and not just an aberration, a fluke, a quirk of nature.
So here I am ready to embark on my 21st Derby Dozen with no road marks to guide me any longer. I cannot turn to the history books for assistance. I am, for the first time, overwhelmed at the thought that any horse can win the Kentucky Derby and pop into the Derby picture at any time regardless of how late it may be and how little foundation he may have. Justify has removed history from the equation, with unraced Derby horses now about to shower down on me well after Valentine’s Day and Presidents Day, as if I need my brain to be scrambled any further.
But there is one thought I can still hold on to. Yes, Justify has written his own rulebook with the premise that there no longer are any rules. But I can take comfort in firmly believing that there is only one Justify and that we likely will not see anything like this happen again, at least not in the near future.
So, upon further thought, it is going to be business as usual on the Derby trail. I am not going to bury Apollo just yet. I am not going to close the history books. I am not going to let one freakish racehorse suddenly make logic illogical.
As for Justify’s abbreviated career, leaving us way too soon, all we can do is hope that is not what we have to look forward to from these whirlwind Derby horses, if they indeed are destined to become the norm. But I am not going to think about that now. I’m just concentrating on whittling some 30 horses down to 12 as I always have done and assume Justify was a rare treasure, the likes of which we will never see again.