05/10/2007 11:00PM

Fewer preps trendy on both sides of Atlantic


NEW YORK - For as long as anyone can remember, the Kentucky Derby and the 2000 Guineas have almost always been held on the first Saturday in May, but while the two classics may share the same day of running, they could hardly be more different.

In terms of both conditions and approach, the year's two most important early season classics could hardly be more dissimilar. A 1 1/4-mile dirt race, the Derby lies at the heart of what used to be a vigorous, full-bodied racing culture in America. The Guineas, on the other hand, while sharing the Derby's place as the first leg of the English Triple Crown, was designed in 1809 as a race for horses working their way up to the Epsom Derby's more arduous 1 1/2 miles to display their speed.

But though both races kick off their respective triple crowns, the approach taken by trainers towards the Derby and the Guineas throughout the 20th century have been as different as night and day. That is, until the last few years.

Coming as it does just a few weeks into a British turf flat racing season that did not begin this year until March 22, the Guineas is run so early that horses simply do not have the time to get more than two prep races under their belts before heading to Newmarket. Of the 24 horses who went in this year's Guineas, only four had had two runs this year, 13 had run once, while seven were making their seasonal debuts. Surprising as it may seem, three of the first four places and five of the first eight were filled by horses making their seasonal debuts. The winner, Cockney Rebel, had not run since Sept. 9. The runner-up, Vital Equine, had been absent since Oct. 29.

British bettors took this in their stride, as such things have been par for the course for nearly 200 years.

Nine of the last 12 winners of the 2000 Guineas were making their first start of the season. The other three had had just a single prep race, meaning that the last 12 Guineas winners have had an average of one-quarter of a race under their belts as they stepped into the classic gate. By comparison, the winners of the last 12 Kentucky Derbies have averaged 3.58 prep races, although that average since 2005 is down to 2.67.

A Kentucky Derby comparison with the Epsom Derby is perhaps more apropos, as the Epsom classic is always run on the first or second Saturday in June, 2 1/2 months after the start of the British flat season. But the last 12 winners of the Epsom Derby have averaged just 1.33 prep races, and the average is actually going down. Between 1998 and 2002, each Epsom Derby winner had had two preps. The last four Epsom winners have had just one.

This year's 20 Kentucky Derby runners had a total of 61 prior starts as 3-year-olds, an average of 3.05 per runner. Compared with the Guineas average of .875 starts per runner, that seems like a lot, but the number of prep races per Derby starter is dropping each year. Given that the Derby winner Street Sense had had just two preps, and that the first three home in the Derby had an average of just 2.67 starts this year, it appears as though less is better as far as classic preps go in both the Derby and the Guineas.

That Curlin could finish third in the Derby without even having run as a 2-year-old is something that would be rare even by 2000 Guineas standards. The reasons for the decrease in Derby preps are probably more obvious than many would like to admit. First, the Thoroughbred these days is not nearly as stouthearted as he was in mid-20th century. It has taken too long for American horsemen to realize this. The carnage on the road to the Kentucky Derby during the 1990s and the early part of the current decade was appalling. Now trainers are taking the growing weakness of the American Thoroughbred into greater account. They are also desirous of having a horse standing on all four legs come the fall, when there are a greater number of prestigious events such as the Breeders' Cup.

It seems likely that future Kentucky Derby starters will have even fewer preps, and that is necessarily a good thing, given the nature of the contemporary Thoroughbred. But a Kentucky Derby winner coming off a 10-month layoff, as was the case with 1995 Epsom Derby winner Lammtarra, is something that would be all but impossible, in this day and age or any other.