04/25/2010 11:00PM

First casualty of Derby fever: judgment


WASHINGTON - Exceptional 3-year-olds are in short supply this spring. The top colt of the generation, Eskendereya, is injured, and only a few others have displayed enough talent to win the Kentucky Derby even in a subpar year.

Nevertheless, Churchill Downs's starting gate will be filled Saturday. The rules of the Derby limit the field to 20 entrants, and for the sixth straight year the race is expected to attract the maximum number. This is a new phenomenon. From 1985 to 2004, the Derby didn't have a 20-horse field. The numbers reflect the sustained popularity of the event, but there is also a disturbing development that has helped create these 20-horse fields. Most trainers have stopped employing sound judgment and horsemanship to determine whether a horse belongs in the Derby.

The cardinal rules for training Thoroughbreds have changed little over the decades: Manage horses with patience. Don't ask them to do anything for which they're not fully prepared. Don't run them where they are overmatched. Even when the Kentucky Derby was concerned, trainers used to be cautious. Charlie Whittingham operated the strongest stable in the West, but he didn't run a horse in the Derby for 26 years before he won with Ferdinand in 1986. He knew most 3-year-olds are not ready to face such a demanding test.

"You've got to let the horse tell you when he's ready," Whittingham said. "Listen to anyone else, and you're in trouble."

It's hard to imagine horses such as Dean's Kitten, Paddy O'Prado, Homeboykris, and Stately Victor whispered, "I'm ready for the Derby!" to their respective trainers this spring. Dean's Kitten has raced once on dirt, losing by 34 lengths. Paddy O'Prado is a turf runner who has won once in his career. Homeboykris hasn't raced since February and hasn't won since October. Stately Victor beat a poor field in slow time over a synthetic track in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes, and he is 0 for 3 on dirt. Knowledgeable, successful trainers manage all of these horses. Why are they making these questionable choices?

There was a time when owners and trainers who wanted to make their mark in the sport had many alternatives. They might get as much prestige and satisfaction from winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Santa Anita Handicap as they would from a Triple Crown event. But as the sport's overall popularity has declined, the Triple Crown races are the only ones that continue to appeal to a broad segment of the public. Every rich owner who gets into the game now has the same aim: to win the Kentucky Derby. Trainers know, too, that the way to make their reputation and attract more clients is to win the 3-year-old classics.

Another factor has undoubtedly affected the thinking of owners and trainers this year: the memory of Mine That Bird. His Derby victory in 2009 was one of the most inexplicable upsets in the history of American horse racing. There may not be a result like it at Churchill Downs for another century, but Mine That Bird gives hope to every owner and trainer with an underachieving 3-year-old. If it were not for the 20-horse rule, this year's Derby might have had as many as 30 entrants.

Churchill Downs imposed the limit after the chaotic 23-horse Derby in 1974. The rule give preference to the 20 horses with the highest earnings in graded stakes races - the major events that a committee has anointed as Grade 1, Grade 2, or Grade 3. The system isn't perfect, but it's good enough. However, it has affected the mind-set of owners and trainers in recent years. Instead of trying to decide whether their colt ought to run in the Derby, they act as if top-20 earnings qualify him for the race and prove his legitimacy. The earnings rule has perversely created a justification for running horses who don't belong in the field.

Yet the reasons for caution about running in the Derby are the same as they were in Charlie Whittingham's era. No race in America is so stressful. Three-year-olds are being asked to run farther than they have ever run, against the largest field they will ever see, under conditions that invariably produce bumping, jostling - or worse. The race always takes a toll on its contestants.

Last year, after one entrant was scratched, a total of 19 horses started in the Derby. Of them, 16 did not win a race for the remainder of the year. Six didn't race more than once. Promising colts regressed and couldn't regain their form after their Derby venture. It is understandable that almost any owner and trainer wants to experience the excitement of the Kentucky Derby, but it is an experience that often comes at a high price.

(c) 2010, The Washington Post