Updated on 09/17/2011 11:38AM

Juvenile hit by passing game


Earlier this year, the Breeders' Cup announced that the purse of the Juvenile was being raised from $1 million to $1.5 million to help ensure the participation of the nation's top 2-year-olds in what is supposed to be the division's championship race. As it turns out, it might have been more appropriate to drop the purse by $500,000 or scrap the race altogether.

It was just last weekend that Birdstone, Eurosilver, and Ruler's Court scored definitive victories in the final trio of major preps for the Juvenile, with respective triumphs the Champagne at Belmont, the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, and the Norfolk at Santa Anita. They all reportedly came out of their races in perfect health and would logically have headed for the Juvenile, where a victory would have made any of them America's champion 2-year-old and the early favorite for the 2004 Triple Crown races.

Instead, all three are done for the year and passing a Breeders' Cup already reeling from the defections of the nation's best-known 3-year-olds and older horses, including Mineshaft, Candy Ride, Empire Maker, and Funny Cide. All will instead be pointed for the Kentucky Derby but will not race until spring because their owners and trainers think running in the Juvenile could compromise their chances at the 3-year-old classics.

Are they all believers in the superstitious notion of a "Juvenile jinx" because no Juvenile winner has gone on to victory in the Derby? Has the whole idea of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile outlived its usefulness? Is the American Thoroughbred now so fragile an animal that our best 2-year-olds can not withstand more than a handful of starts and will be so damaged by running in October that they can't win a race the following May?

If so, the breed has not exactly improved in the mere 20 years of running Breeders' Cups. In the inaugural Juvenile back in 1984, Chief's Crown, Tank's Prospect, and Spend a Buck crossed the wire in that order and came back just fine to be the dominant players in the 1985 Triple Crown. None of their connections ever thought that running in the Juvenile in California in November had any negative effect on their colts.

Plenty of other good ones have run in both the Juvenile and the Triple Crown without ill effect, including such champions as Alysheba and Easy Goer, and the lone Juvenile winner to capture a Triple Crown race, Timber Country. The whole idea of a jinx is overestimated, given a tiny sample of 19 results and the fact that so many Juvenile winners have been stretch-out speed horses who were unlikely to thrive at classic distances. It is faulty logic to say that the failures of these horses means that a legitimate classic aspirant will be hurt by running in the race.

What has really changed is the profile of recent Derby winners and the fuss that the breeding community has made over these untested and unproven horses. When colts such as Fusaichi Pegasus and War Emblem fail to win stakes races at 2 and then emerge from obscurity to win the Derby and get prematurely sent to the breeding shed in a cloud of millions, owners conclude that less is more and that the traditional routes for top horses are no longer necessary.

The most astounding of the three defections from the Juvenile is that of Ruler's Court. At least with Birdstone and Eurosilver, trainer Nick Zito had the added (though hardly insurmountable) hurdles of a cross-country ship and trying a new track. Ruler's Court, however, just won the Norfolk at the identical surface and distance over which the Juvenile will be contested - won it by 14 lengths, in fact, while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 102 that might have made him the favorite.

Instead of bringing him over to the track for a chance at an Eclipse Award, though, the Maktoums are stopping on him and sending him to Dubai for the winter, a program that has proved disastrous with their other Derby prospects but which they stubbornly pursue. Perhaps they think that skipping the Juvenile is a concession to recent American results. A more thoughtful change might be leaving these horses over here and exposing them to legitimate rather than intramural competition.

The way the game is going, perhaps we have seen the last of Ruler's Court. A few listless gallops in the desert and it might be time to make a stallion out of this grandson of Seattle Slew. They'll say that he proved all he needed to prove on the racetrack and, what's worse, enough people would believe that to fill up his dance card at stud.