Updated on 09/16/2011 7:16AM

All horses are not created equal

Email

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Came Home and Johannesburg come to the Kentucky Derby with greater accomplishments than any of their rivals, but both colts are viewed with widespread skepticism at Churchill Downs. Many experts say Came Home, the California speedster, and Johannesburg, the European champion, cannot win Saturday because they lack the pedigree to run 1 1/4 miles effectively.

Casual fans watching the Derby might scoff at such a notion. Certainly, it would sound absurd if an analyst declared that a human athlete couldn't win the Olympic marathon or 100-meter dash because of the shortcomings of his mother and father. And it seems appallingly undemocratic to suggest that an individual's merit cannot overcome his heredity.

John Toffan, the co-owner of Came Home, scoffs, too. He has watched his colt win successive races at seven furlongs, one mile, and 1 1/8 miles, and he said, "I think he can run farther. There are a lot of self-appointed pedigree experts out there, but breeding racehorses is not a science."

It may not be a science, but buyers spend vast sums of money on well-bred young horses because bloodlines are supremely important. And there are few specific qualities in Thoroughbreds so influenced by pedigree as their distance-running ability.

Of course, sprint-bred horses can win distance races; American racing is so speed-favoring that front-runners often find favorable conditions that let them go farther than their genes may have intended. And sometimes a horse's sheer superior talent will enable him to win at a distance that seems too long for him. But while such horses regularly succeed at one mile or even 1 1/8 miles, the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles is a different game. Arthur Hancock, breeder of two Derby winners, said, "That's a telltale eighth of a mile. To me, that extra eighth is the difference between a boy and a man."

A novice who wants a basic education about the relationship of genes to stamina might study the record of the stallion Phone Trick, one of the best American sprinters of the past 20 years. The majority of his offspring are sprinters, but Phone Trick has sired several good stakes horses who won important races as far as 1 1/8 miles - most notably 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick. But the offspring of Phone Trick don't win at 1 1/4 miles. Even people with a rudimentary understanding of bloodlines knew that Favorite Trick was a throw-out in the 1998 Derby.

Just as it is easy to evaluate a son of Phone Trick, it's easy to evaluate descendants of Unbridled, the 1990 Derby winner who made a career of siring 10-furlong runners and who has a son and grandson - Saarland and Buddha - in this year's field. But the majority of pedigrees fall into a gray area because even most sprinters have some ancestors who might contribute stamina to the genetic mix. How do you evaluate pedigrees for the Derby?

For much of the 1980's and 90's, a method called Dosage was in vogue, and the Daily Racing Form routinely listed the Dosage Index alongside the name of each Derby contender. The system assigned points for the speed influences and stamina influences of certain stallions that might appear in a horse's pedigree and produced a numerical rating that indicated whether a horse was bred to go 1 1/4 miles. Most fans overlooked some of the inherent contradictions of Dosage while it compiled a record of supposed success in the Derby. But when it disqualified back-to-back Derby winners Real Quiet and Charismatic, Dosage was discredited, and common-sense analysis was back in vogue.

This is Hancock's common-sense approach: "I look at the horse's parents and grandparents and see if they've won at 1 1/4 miles or sired or produced winners at 1 1/4 miles."

Even a superficial study of past Derby winners shows that few won the sport's greatest prize with a pedigree lacking in stamina influences (though some winners had ambiguous pedigrees because their sires were unproved). Do Came Home and Johannesburg have the genes to win Saturday?

Came Home is a son of Gone West, a high-class stallion who has two other sons in the 128th Derby - Castle Gandolfo and Proud Citizen. As a racehorse, Gone West was regarded as a top miler, though he did win once at 1 1/8 miles. His progeny have similar aptitudes, though his son Commendable did win at 1 1/2 miles in a slow Belmont Stakes.

Gone West doesn't automatically disqualify Came Home as a Derby contender, but his female lineage is even more questionable. Came Home's dam, Nice Assay, is a daughter of a pure sprinter, Clever Trick. When Nice Assay was bred to the Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, she produced a brilliantly fast daughter, A.P. Assay, who was a pure sprinter, too. The evidence suggests Came Home's genes won't carry him a 1 1/4 miles.

Johannesburg's parents are the young sire Hennessy and the mare Myth, whose only victory came in a six-furlong race. Although there is limited evidence about Hennessy as a stallion, he is a son of Storm Cat, and pedigree consultant Bill Oppenheim declared: "Most Storm Cats tend to sprint. Johannesburg has no chance to stay 10 furlongs on either side of his pedigree. His only chance is that he's a freak of nature and outruns his pedigree."

The racing records of Came Home or Johannesburg appear to confirm the evidence of their pedigrees. Came Home has been less impressive each time he goes a longer distance. So even though people watching Saturday's race might consider it unfair that their Derby chances could have been doomed at birth, these two talented colts will add to the evidence that biology is destiny - especially in a 1 1/4-mile race.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post