03/19/2014 1:48PM

Road to Kentucky Derby bumpy as ever for top 3-year-olds

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Shared Belief, last year's 2-year-old champion, is among several top 3-year-olds already out of consideration for the Kentucky Derby.

The road to this year’s Kentucky Derby might seem as jarring as a drive down Wilshire Boulevard near Western in Los Angeles, or on the Belt Parkway near Aqueduct – the kind of ride that makes your body shudder.

The list of prominent defections comprises many. New Year’s Day, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, was injured and retired. Shared Belief, the champion 2-year-old male of 2013, has a nagging foot injury that has taken him out of consideration. They were two of the three finalists for a divisional Eclipse Award, and the third finalist, Havana, missed his scheduled comeback earlier this month in the Swale Stakes and hasn’t worked since.

Highly regarded runners such as Indianapolis (illness) and Top Billing (injury) also are off the Derby trail.
This rate of attrition hasn’t happened since, well, a year ago.

In 2013, Shanghai Bobby was the reigning 2-year-old champ and Breeders’ Cup winner, Violence had won the CashCall Futurity, and Flashback was among the horses seemingly on the rise. They were three of the top six choices among individual betting interests in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. And none made the Derby.

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Think the past two years are aberrations? Think again. In 2012, the second choice among individual horses in Pool 1 was Algorithms, and one of the prominent late bloomers was Fed Biz. Neither made it.

In 2011, Uncle Mo was a heavy favorite among the individual horses in Pool 1 at 7-2, and To Honor and Serve was third at 10-1. Well-fancied runners in Pool 1 in 2010 included Eskendereya, Buddy’s Saint, and Rule, and in 2009, Old Fashioned was the shortest price of the individual runners in Pool 1, whose ranks also included I Want Revenge and The Pamplemousse. None raced in the Derby.

So, this year’s attrition rate among top Derby contenders is no higher than usual; it’s actually in line with what has become the norm.
But what might be the causes of this casualty rate? There is belief that the breed is less hardy than decades ago, and the lighter campaigns of runners certainly bolsters that argument. In 1960, the average – average! – number of pre-Derby starts by that year’s field was 20.8. In this era, that’s an entire career.

But there seems to be many reasons for the attrition rate, and to cite merely one would overlook other contributing factors.
The desire of owners and trainers with 3-year-olds to run in the Derby has never been greater.

“That’s why we do it, every single day, 4 o’clock every morning, 365 days a year, so hopefully we can get that caliber of horse to go to the Kentucky Derby,” said trainer Wayne Catalano, who was expected to run both Poker Player and Solitary Ranger in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway on Saturday.

There were more than 400 horses made eligible to the Triple Crown at the first nomination deadline in January. Since 1986, when horses were allowed to be made eligible for all three Triple Crown races with one payment, the number of nominations at the early deadline has never been fewer than 315, and 10 times it has been more than 400.

The common-nomination form was borne of the snub the Triple Crown took in 1985, when Spend a Buck bypassed the Preakness Stakes to chase a far more lucrative payday in the Jersey Derby, which he won.

The Derby field is capped at 20 runners, and a full field has become the new normal. There have been 20 runners entered in every Derby since 2004, and the only reason 20 didn’t run in all those races was because of late scratches, including the scratches of I Want Revenge and Uncle Mo.

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

Mo horses, mo problems. If there are more horses nominated to the Derby, and more horses whose owners are desirous of running in the race, there are going to be more horses getting injured trying to get to the race.

In the early days of the Derby, double-digit fields were uncommon. There were 15 runners in the first Derby in 1875, but in the 37 years from 1878 through 1914, there were fields of 10 or more just four times. During that era, the most nominations to the Derby were 179, in 1898.
Interest grew exponentially in the 1920s and 1930s. From 1920 through 1938, the Derby field never was fewer than 10, and six times it reached at least 20, including in 1937, when War Admiral won en route to the Triple Crown.

There was a 20-horse field in 1951, as well as in 1971, but from 1938 through the early 1970s, the Derby field was usually in the teens, and it was not uncommon for the field to be quite small, with fields of eight in 1938, 1939, and 1969, and just six in 1948, when Citation won.
Not until 1971 were there more than 200 nominations to the Derby. There were three Triple Crown sweeps during the 1970s, and interest in racing – most notably the Derby – skyrocketed. In 1981 – just a decade after the 200 threshold was reached – there were 432 horses nominated to the Derby, and the number has never dipped lower than 312 since.

There’s a larger pool of horses trying to make the Derby. And, in turn, a larger pool of horses who won’t.