Vic Zast

From the perspective of being an owner, an industry pioneer in corporate sponsorship, a track president and fan, Vic Zast writes the "Destinations" column for The Blood-Horse. His five-star ratings of international events have shed light on racing in all corners of the globe - from England, Australia, Hong Kong, Dubai to Japan.

Vic is a regular contributor to, a columnist for the Illinois Racing News and has written on racing for, National Public radio and The Age, Australia's leading daily.

Vic makes his home in Chicago and lives in Saratoga Springs in August.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Not Your Father’s Derby

(NEW YORK, NY – May 16, 2011) None of the candid remarks that Barry Irwin uttered in the post-race interview room at Churchill Downs following the Kentucky Derby won by Animal Kingdom was as widely ignored as his chastisement of the press for applying old standards to the present.

Perhaps the press didn’t take Team Valor International’s CEO seriously, or perhaps it was stunned by his charges that all trainers, except one, don’t communicate to owners truthfully and that partnerships like his haven’t been treated very well by the racetracks. But, whatever occurred, the one thing that Irwin got right isn’t splattered all over the horse racing news like the others.

Turf writers, like handicappers, thrive on statistics. The Derby is loaded with them. The race’s mystique prompts the belief that a code rules the outcome. The code spreads its influence wide, suggesting that victory is likely to elude horses that aren’t of a certain kind. Adhering to such belief, on the other hand, has never been more preposterous.

Furthermore, each race, no matter the prize, presents its own set of circumstances that makes using a trend to determine its outcome illogical. Although it is true that the Run for the Roses’s 137-year history reveals similarities among winners, recent runnings have proved that looking back into time for clues to foretell which horse will win is like predicting the Cubs can’t be World Series champs because they haven’t been World Series champs for over a century. Hey, wait, isn’t there some better analogy?

"If a turf writer paid attention to a horse like this and just looked at the horse like an individual, I think they would have figured out why he was a buyable force,” Irwin insisted toward the end of his stay on the dais. Yet, one wonders if the former LA turf writer really meant what he said, and what he might have said instead had his horse lost because he failed to adapt to the dirt or was under-experienced. Clearly, he knew that his runner stood on the wrong side of history or else he couldn’t have called out the facts about what Animal Kingdom accomplished so readily.

“We made a lot of history today,” Irwin told moderator John Asher, Vice President, Racing Communications for Churchill Downs, at the very outset of his inquisition. “This is the first horse that came to win this race with only four previous races since Exterminator in 1918 and the first horse to win after a six-week layoff since Needles in 1956,” he said, rattling off names and dates like a wolf in sheep’s clothes.

“This getting hung up on no turf horses have ever done this, no synthetic horses have ever done this – that kind of stuff, and getting bogged down in the statistics of the post position – no horse have ever won from the 19; maybe there’s never been a good horse in the 19,” the Team Valor International CEO rambled, obviously slighted. Irwin seemed miffed that his colt overlooked because the glove didn’t fit. And, if this was the case, who could blame him?

If nothing else, the last several Derbies have indicated that the past no longer seems prologue. The 2009 winner Mine That Bird failed to run in any of the five Grade 1 stakes preps, joining only four Derby winners in the last 60 years to accomplish their victories in Louisville without doing that. In 2008, Big Brown proved that a horse such as Animal Kingdom can win without entering a stakes as a two-year-old. In 2007, Street Sense beat the Breeders Cup Juvenile jinx.

The 2006 winner Barbaro rested five weeks before his Derby – inadvisable, experts said. In 2005, Giacomo didn’t hit the board in his Grade 1 Derby prep, considered a pre-requisite. A year earlier, Smarty Jones was the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977; John Servis and Stuart Elliot, the first trainer/jockey combo to win in their first attempts – so much for knowing the way there. In 2003, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred ever and the first gelding since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 to triumph. The year before, War Emblem became the only Illinois Derby winner to wear roses. Exceptions, not rules, have dominated the decade.

Considering the decade, Irwin had every right to make his point about naivete. What he could have said just as meaningfully is that everyone involved in the sport needed to see it for what it is, not for what it once was. The same factors that in recent years have turned the tables upside down in connecting a pattern to Derby success are influencing horse racing on a day to day basis.

Stamina has been bred out of horses (the dual Dosage Index score and Experimental Highweight ranking as a gauge has collapsed) and the careers of the sport’s most talented competitors rarely reach double figures in races contested. If they do, they’re careers that seldom make it to May or beyond June (Eskendereya, Eight Belles, Pioneerofthenile and Archarcharch). This is not your father’s sport and not your father’s Derby any longer. Things have changed to make the Derby any horse's horse race.

It’s been 33 years since a Triple Crown winner. Conditions seem ideal for one. Next May, please don’t listen to the reasons why certain horses can’t win at Churchill Downs. Take heed of what Irwin noted, even if he chose an occasion that should have been spent praising people instead of tearing them down. Irwin’s not on to something. He’s simply studied the decade more closely than others.

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Written by Vic Zast

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