MIAMI, APRIL 26, 2013--Gary Mandella said something on HRTV last week that I found so shocking, it sent me immediately to my computer. Mandella has become as sharp an analyst as he is a trainer, so there was no reason to doubt him. But it was so surprising I had to see for myself.
Filling time during HRTVâ€™s lead-up to the West Virginia Classic, Mandella was praising likely Kentucky Derby favorite Verrazano as â€śone of the most talented 3-year-olds in the country, no doubt about it.â€ť
Then came the â€śbut.â€ť Mandella said he wasnâ€™t as worried about the jinx of Apolloâ€”no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old in 125 yearsâ€”as he was about Verrazano, who has made all four starts in 2013, bucking a more recent trend. â€śIt has been six or seven years since a horse won the Derby off more than two preps (as a 3-year-old). I think thatâ€™s the most significant trend heâ€™s bucking.â€ť
Sure enough, the last horse to win the Derby off as many as three preps was Barbaro in 2006.
Iâ€™ll Have Another, Animal Kingdom, Super Saver, Mine That Bird, Big Brown and Street Sense were all making the third start of their 3-year-old campaigns when they captured the roses. The most recent Derby winner to have as many as four preps was Smarty Jones in 2004.
If you want to follow this trend, this yearâ€™s Derby came be narrowed down to five potential winners, with a case to be made for a sixth. Javaâ€™s War, Overanalyze, Revolutionary, Normandy Invasion and Mylute will each be making their third start of the year. Dubai shipper Lines of Battle will be making only his second start.
Upon reflection, this trend shouldnâ€™t be shocking. Horses being handled extremely conservatively mirrors what is happening throughout the game as horses race fewer times each year. For the sake of the excitement Triple Crown prep season generates, Iâ€™m hoping one of the others wins, lest two preps become the new normal.
Pettiness denied Churchill Downs the opportunity to say, â€śIn your face!â€ť to the numerous detractors of the new Kentucky Derby qualifying points system (which included me).
One week from the Run for the Roses, the 20 who qualified for the May 4 running is pretty much the same group that would have faced the starter under the old earnings criteria.
Thanks to the exclusion of all races under a mile, there are no Trinnibergs to screw up the pace before throwing in the towel.
It might have been nice if there was a route to the Derby for an outstanding filly, such as Dreaming of Julia, Midnight Lucky or Eclipse champion Beholder. Then again, their connections knew the new rules and chose not to compete in any of the open preps with Derby points.
None of the likely starters have made the cut because of over-inflated earnings as a 2-year-old. Churchill Downs took a lot of heat for putting a race like the Delta Jackpot on a par with the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile. I still donâ€™t think this is fair or just. In my opinion, the BC Juvenile should count for at least twice as much as any other 2-year-old race. But you canâ€™t argue with the results.
Three horses from the Delta Jackpotâ€”winner Goldencents, show horse Mylute and Itsmyluckyday, who ran sixthâ€”are in the 2013 Derby. Amazingly, this is three more than emerged from the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile.
Everything was coming up roses (pun intended) for the new system until Departing demolished his foes in the Illinois Derby. The premier race of the Hawthorne season carried no Derby qualifying points because Churchill management doesn't get along with the owners of Hawthorne. Using the Derby qualification process as a club to settle extraneous scores is petty and vindictive.
Few objective observers could argue Departing is not deserving of one of the spots in the Derby starting gate. Itâ€™s not as if he jumped up from nowhere to win the Illinois Derby. In his prior start, he ran third in the Louisiana Derby behind Revolutionary, who will be one of the Kentucky Derby favorites, and Mylute, who also made the field. Prior to the Fair Grounds race, Departing won his first three career starts.
Departing is expected to jump on to the Triple Crown trail in the Preakness. It would be poetic justice if he embarrasses Churchill by outrunning all or most of the Derby horses, who go on to the second jewel.
Churchill should be embarrassed enough already to include the Illinois Derby in the qualifying process next year. But there is a chance that, instead, Churchill will double down.
If the South Florida confrontation between Gulfstream and Churchill-owned Calder comes to pass, Calder plans to move at least two of its major Derby age racesâ€”the Tropical Derby and Foolish Pleasureâ€”into the heart of Triple Crown prep season.
Calder general manager John Marshall says the idea is these races will have Derby qualifying points attached to them. No problem there, unless it is at the expense of traditional Gulfstream preps such as the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth.
The Illinois Derby is one thing. The Florida Derby, with its rich history of providing horses who distinguish themselves in the Triple Crown races, is an entirely different matter.
I doubt Churchill would risk tarnishing the Derby luster with an additional show of pettiness. Then again, I never thought I would hear Kentucky Derby attached to â€śPresented by Yum Brands.â€ť