04/21/2009 11:00PM

Preparation a whole new ball game

Bob Coglianese
Dunkirk will attempt to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old.

In races at tracks across the country every day, a horse racing for the first time in five weeks, or making his third start off a layoff, would not invite much curiosity. Yet handicappers often treat the Kentucky Derby as something other than just another race.

Though Barbaro was the second choice in the Derby in 2006, there was skepticism over whether he could win because of a five-week layoff preceding the Derby. No horse had won with a gap at least that long in 50 years. The fact that no major prep was five weeks out until the Florida Derby was moved was foolishly ignored by those who discounted Barbaro's chances.

Street Sense was making his third start off a layoff in 2007. Many handicappers believe that that form cycle is indicative of a peak performance, and Street Sense was favored at nearly 5-1 odds. Yet those trying to beat Street Sense believed that since no horse had won the Derby with similar preparation since Sunny's Halo in 1983, Street Sense would fall into a black hole.

Last year, Big Brown came into the Derby with just three lifetime starts. No horse had won the Derby with so little experience since Regret in 1915. But Big Brown had an edge. He was far and away the best horse.

But while the wall that posts Derby-winning criteria has been obliterated in recent years, there is one large chunk that has yet to fall. Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse won the Derby without first racing as a 2-year-old. Since 1944, 53 horses have come into the Derby bearing that cross. Just six have finished in the money, most recently Curlin, who was third in 2007.

"That's a lot of history to overcome," Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Dunkirk, acknowledged this week.

If a horse like Curlin - who went on to be a two-time Horse of the Year - couldn't do it, can Dunkirk? Like Curlin, Dunkirk enters the Derby with just three starts, all at age 3. Curlin was unbeaten going into the Derby. Dunkirk has only Quality Road, the likely Derby favorite, to blame for his lone loss.

Quality Road, though, has raced just four times, with one start at age 2. In comparison with 50, or even 20, years ago, Derby runners of this era have far less preparation. And that is why Pletcher believes the drought since Apollo will end soon, confined to the same pile of rubble as the five-week layoff, only having two preps at age 3, and only having three lifetime starts going into the Derby.

"Training has changed," Pletcher said. "People are not running as frequently at this level as they did 15 or 20 years ago. Big Brown made skeptics second-guess a lot of their theories."

The differences between now and then are stark. In 1989, the 15 starters in that year's Derby averaged 8.73 starts before the Derby, ranging from Dansil's 13 to the five of Faultless Ensign and Houston. Of the 20 horses expected to run in this year's Derby, six have raced five times or fewer. The most experienced horse is General Quarters, with 11 starts.

In 1979, the 10 runners averaged 11.6 starts before the Derby. Spectacular Bid, who won the race, had already run 14 times. These days, that's a career. Fifty years ago, in 1959, the 17 runners averaged 14.4 starts before the Derby.

It certainly is a far different game.

"A lot of historical trends for the Derby have changed in the last 10 years," Pletcher said. "I hope this one follows suit."

In other Derby developments:

* The long-term friendship between owner Paul Reddam and jockey Corey Nakatani came into play again on Wednesday when Nakatani decided to pass on riding Mr. Hot Stuff to ride the Reddam-owned Square Eddie instead.

It was a domino-like series of events that put Nakatani on Square Eddie. Square Eddie finished third in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes on Saturday with Edgar Prado, but Prado on Sunday opted to ride Dunkirk when Garrett Gomez picked Pioneerof the Nile over Dunkirk.

That opened the mount on Square Eddie, and Nakatani took it. He had been scheduled to ride Mr. Hot Stuff, who most recently was third in the Santa Anita Derby.

Eoin Harty, the trainer of Mr. Hot Stuff, said he was informed of Nakatani's decision on Wednesday morning and had yet to decide on a replacement.

* Mr. Hot Stuff was originally scheduled to fly to Kentucky on Thursday, but he will remain in California and have his final work at Santa Anita on Sunday, then fly Monday, Harty said.

"I've been in Kentucky a lot myself the past week," Harty said. "The weather's been hard to get a handle on. It's been 45 and rainy. I'd just rather keep him in California and work him on that track."

* Advice, Hold Me Back, and Join in the Dance all traveled from Keeneland to Churchill on Wednesday.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen and Mike Welsch



Led by Advice, the winner of the Coolmore Lexington Stakes last Saturday at Keeneland, there are four newcomers to this, the final top 20 of the 2009 edition of Derby Watch. Advice is listed as a 30-1 shot on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. The other three newcomers are also big prices. Watchmaker has Summer Bird at 30-1, and both Flying Private and Mine That Bird at 50-1. A little more than one week out from the Derby, Watchmaker has I Want Revenge (9-2) a narrow favorite over Quality Road (5-1).


Four horses - Charitable Man, Giant Oak, Jeranimo, Mafaaz - were removed from the list, either because of poor performance or because their connections decided to pass the Derby for more sensible spots.


It looks like the graded earnings clause, which restricts the Derby field to 20 runners, will have to be invoked, since the connections of several horses are still desirous of getting in should there be a defection from the top 20 before entry time next Wednesday. Most notable is Join in the Dance, currently 21st on the earnings list. His owners are eager to run, despite the colt's disappointing recent form.

- Jay Privman