Monday, February 25, 2013

Has Time Come to Rethink the 3-Year-Old Season?

On Saturday, 50 important points were up for grabs in both the 1-1/16 miles Fountain of Youth and the Risen Star, according to the new Kentucky Derby eligibiity format. Orb won the Fountain of Youth and benefited from a hot pace. He won in a time of 1:42 1/5.

Ive Struck A Nerve won the Risen Star in a time of 1:44 2/5, at 135-1 odds no less. The horses in the this field seemed to be talking down the stretch saying, ‘If you’d like to win, why don’t you just go on ahead.’

‘No, no, why don’t you win. You could use the points.’

‘Ah, the points! I stand to get a few here.’

‘Oh, and who’s that?’ Ive Struck A Nerve? Indeed!’

If we are to believe a fifth of a second equates to a length on the track, then Ive Struck A Nerve is 2 1/5 seconds slower or, depressingly, 11 lengths slower than Orb.

The Fountain of Youth had more cache, what with the Todd Pletcher-trained Violence. This colt broke his maiden at Saratoga as a heavy, heavy favorite. He had to earn it, but showed his class and his $600,000 yearling price. I was actually at the track this day, oddly enough as I try to avoid it.

Too many dark and stormies and a swisher sweets had me hugging my toilet like Hunter Thompson. I wiped my face and did a book signing, like Hunter Thompson would. That’s how you rally. Got my picture in the New York Times that day. Good on ya!

Violence chased a wicked pace. The opening quarter was benign enough at 23 flat, though the half was blistering in 45 2/5. They sped up in the second quarter. Javier Castellano pressed the issue and got Violence into the mix earlier than prescribed, one has to think. Naturally, Orb sat there below John Velasquez, that newly-minted Hall of Famer, and swallowed up the homestretch with those big strides of Orb’s that everyone is talking about.

But, alas, Violence is off the Derby Trail with a sesamoid fracture. It’s almost comical at this point how these “brilliant” horses break down. Actually, it is comical. Not that I’m rooting for horses to get hurt—because I’m not, let's be clear here—but this just plays into the greater farce that is 3-year-old horse racing.

The Derby Season is a mockery. Year in and year out the sophomores come through and prove to be as deciduous as baby teeth. The come in, they fall out before they have a chance to bite anything harder than Gerbers.

Sometimes, Todd Pletcher 3-year-olds have a hard time making it to the fall. Two that come to mind are Flower Alley (2005) and Any Given Saturday (2007), but that's now eight and six years ago. Quality Road wasn’t his (previously Jimmy Jerkens) until after the 2009 Derby, and even then QR scratched before the Breeders' Cup Classic because of his gate issues. Algorithms was the latest example last year until misfortune struck another undefeated colt over the weekend.

Isn't it high time to change the format of the Triple Crown season--and I’m not even talking spacing the races out? I’m talking delay it a year and make it a 4-year-old competition. It’s time to evolve. The only other sport that is so married to its past is baseball. Even baseball is considering expanded replay.

These horses are proving too fragile and they’re perpetuating that fragility in retirement. In 30 years, will anyone care that the Kentucky Derby was won by a 4-year-old and not a 3-year-old? Of course not! Outside the gates of America's racetracks, do most sport fans even associate the word Derby with three-year-olds? No; they associate with a race run in Kentucky.

But Back to Orb.

His trainer Shug McGaughey is working on a dream that is 41 years in the making. So, yes, Shug watched Orb dig in, hang a bit, but cruise by Violence as he will cruise by 18 or 19 horses in a few months (continued good health permitting).

For all the trainer bashing that goes on with the Big 5, Shug avoids such criticism. Maybe it’s because he’s a loyalist and trains exclusively for the knightly Phipps Stable. It’s as if he has his own personal oil well that he sustainably rigs. The horses come up. He trains them. They go away. More horses come up. And he keeps plugging.

Could it be that Orb is his best shot at winning the Derby since Easy Goer? Violence could have been to Orb as Sunday Silence was to Easy Goer. Maybe this year he gets the Derby cuz it’s been a long, long time.

(Sunday) Violence dug in and fought on. It showed he was a contender, at least a contender through February, which, sadly, is par for the course.

Thunder Gulch was the last horse to win the Fountain of Youth and then go on to win the Derby. The way Orb ran, that 18-year drought could come to an end.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

Comments (2)

BallHype: hype it up!

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