Updated on 09/16/2011 8:17AM

Handling today's hothouse warriors


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In almost every sport, today's athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, and better conditioned than their counterparts in the past. But Thoroughbred horse racing is a conspicuous and mysterious exception.

The starters in Saturday's Kentucky Derby are not as strong as the runners in the 1950's, 60's, and 70's, and this conclusion is not based on any romanticizing of the past. Anyone who studies Daily Racing Form's past performances for this year's field and compares them with earlier decades would suspect that modern horses are a different breed altogether.

The change in the animals has necessitated a profound change in the way trainers prepare them for the Derby. And this, in turn, has forced fans to adjust the way they analyze the race. Horses once had to fit a time-tested profile in order to succeed, but the lessons of the past may not be relevant any more.

By almost any measurement, today's Thoroughbreds are less durable than their ancestors.

Modern horses don't run as often.

Carry Back raced 28 times before he won the 1961 Derby, and kept going; his career spanned 61 starts. Dancer's Image had started 22 times in the 10 months before he captured the 1968 Derby. The horses in Saturday's race have averaged seven starts apiece, and these light pre-Derby campaigns don't mean that they will have longer careers afterward. Five of the last seven Derby winners were retired by the spring of their 4-year-old season.

Modern horses need more rest between races.

The definitive prep races for the Derby used to be the Derby Trial, run four days before the main event, and the Blue Grass Stakes, run nine days before. Only one of the starters in Saturday's field will have raced within 20 days of the Derby. Perfect Drift and Request for Parole are coming into the race after a six-week absence from competition so they will be "fresh."

Modern horses don't train as hard between races.

After Summer Tan ran in the 1955 Wood Memorial, two weeks before the Derby, trainer Sherrill Ward took him to Churchill Downs a few days later and worked him six furlongs, which was just a tune-up for a workout at the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. Two days before the Derby, Summer Tan worked again, zipping six furlongs in 1:14 flat. Last year, Sherrill Ward's nephew, John, prepared Monarchos by giving him a single, slow half-mile workout in the three weeks leading to the Derby.

The change in training regimens has been born of necessity. "Horses today can't stand the hard training. They don't have the constitution," said Bud Delp, who won the 1979 Derby with Spectacular Bid. "But I can't tell you why."

John Veitch, who trained Alydar and other stars in the 1970's, believes the explanation lies in the way horses are bred and raised. "Most horses today are bred to be sold instead of being raced by their breeders," he said, "and durability is not a factor when people breed them." Moreover, Veitch said, youngsters bound for the auction ring are handled protectively, instead of being allowed to romp in a field where they might incur superficial injuries that could lower their selling price. "You can't raise a warrior in a hothouse," Veitch declared.

Surely another reason for the decline of the American Thoroughbred is the widespread use of both legal and illegal medications, allowing horses with infirmities to race successfully, then go to stud and pass on those infirmities to their offspring. This thesis is supported by the evidence that so many horses have physical problems before they even go into training. Cot Campbell, founder of Dogwood Stable, observed that when he inspects yearlings before an auction, "Practically every horse has some damn thing wrong with him. They've got bone chips and lesions. We're producing horses who are weak."

The decline of the Thoroughbred raises a crucial question for trainers trying to win the Kentucky Derby, as well as fans trying to pick the winner. What is the ideal way to get a contemporary horse ready for this demanding event?

Years ago, there was an easy answer. Horses needed plenty of experience, including a foundation laid as a 2-year-old. For much of the history of the Derby, this was a sound guideline: A horse should have won at a mile or more as a 2-year-old, and ideally he should have won a stakes race. Horses who didn't meet this criterion were forced to cram too much preparation into too short a time.

In the 1990's, horses came into the Derby with lighter and lighter preparation that rendered these old guidelines irrelevant. Grindstone won in his sixth career start in 1996. Fusaichi Pegasus didn't make his racing debut until December of his 2-year-old season and won the 2000 Derby in his sixth start. Monarchos didn't win a race until January of his 3-year-old season and went on to capture last year's Derby.

While horses come into the race with less seasoning than in the past, the Derby is as physically demanding as it ever was. Modern horses may not campaign like Carry Back, but they still need to be fit, and some historical guidelines still apply.

Every Derby winner since 1918 has had at least five previous starts. Every Derby winner since 1882 raced as a 2-year-old. Two of this year's leading contenders, Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, fall short of these standards; each has raced only four times in his life. Their trainers, James Bond and Bobby Frankel, hope they have done enough to get their horses fit. Like all of their rivals, they have treaded a fine line between doing too little and doing too much for the modern Thoroughbred to tolerate.