03/19/2014 1:48PM

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

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.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Who's hot, who's not]

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.

Jerry Baileyfan More than 1 year ago
The PETA undercover girl Kerin Rosen is 27 and HOT! Pictures of her on petagirl dot com. Her sister is an equine vet and her name is Dr. Erica Rosen. Kerin's sister must be proud of her young hot sister for breaking the story!!
Lafe Bassett More than 1 year ago
Young, hot sister did a great job on her own! This has long been problematic in an industry behind barbed wire, private security, license required facilities that have NO animal protection agency on their grounds. Where else can you have a consolidation of 1,200 to 1,400 animals with no outside oversight? You can believe that Curlin and Rachel Alexander were far from abused, but what about the other, less talented individuals in his care, or at the smaller facilities? What about at their farm where no one is allowed without a search warrant? This is abysmal, egregious behavior by one of the industry superstars. They say the climb to the top is difficult, to horses in these men's care, it can be horrifying, painful, and often fatal. You only hear of the exceptional animals. Somewhere there is a kind person who ventured to the race track out of their love for the animal, only to leave in tears for befriending an animal of lesser value, and witnessing reality. The claiming game alone could send horse people into panic. Auction off your problem and let the next guy worry about this animal that puts his heart and soul into his attempts, and for this he is "claimed" and sent to another outfit to let them figure it out, starting the debauchery all over. Down the ladder, until more and more injuries occur due to trying his or her best time after time. Drug em, whip em, plug em in; these are wonderful magnificent animals who give their all, until their all is worth more by the pound than the claim!
sjm80s . More than 1 year ago
After seeing the horses to this point, its Cairo Prince. This is a bland group this year. Very bland.
Infinity More than 1 year ago
Sir Mala Mala the rabbit....
jason javino More than 1 year ago
it seems that the owners all try to get their horse in the KD. that is the main goal. not to get a great horse and continue to race it. I understand the attempt to get their horse in the KD since there are only about 3500 horses born each year. Whatever the case it just seems that is their only goal is the KD not the sport itself.
Karl Deppen More than 1 year ago
Positive thinking, hope, and the love of the sport ! Come on tracks and TV, nows the time to be pushing the Derby not just on Derby weekend.
George Campbell More than 1 year ago
It's a money game for race tracks, owners, trainers, n jockeys and especially for the governments and political leaders at the time, they all play a part. when money means nothing, then we will have a triple crown. It could happin
RachelL More than 1 year ago
A Triple Crown is very likely this year. There are many horses being retired, some left are average at best and easily beat by one superior horse. It's not a deep field line up this year. Some years , too many horses are equal, not this time. Very few prep races have been memorable., but those that were have been astounding.
ralph More than 1 year ago
I see Shug screwing up Honor Code like he did Orb after the Kentucky Derby.The horse needs points so what's he running in an allowance race for?Takes a chance with this horse after losing Top Billing to a workout injury.This horse still has a lot of potential.
raymond quenga More than 1 year ago
Racing- Fans here it is the [ DYNAMICS ]-OF [ California Chrome ]-Connections n all, Reallity, Cali Chrom- EX-WHEEL TO-ALL, C-U-in-D-Winners-Circle, thx RSQ
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
1. Intense Holiday 2. Tamarando 3. General A Rod 4. Hoppertunity impressive ride, not sure if better then tapitire 5. Honor Code need points 6. Bayern need points super fast 7. Tapiture should take break now, needs jockey change 8. Cairo Prince 9. Vinceremos 10. California Chrome
Joe Rockhold More than 1 year ago
Where's Social Inclusion? He's the most impressive 3 year old I've seen and happens to be bred to run all day. Light on seasoning but his talent can't be denied. Reminds me of Big Brown somewhat.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Well you can take Tamarando, off my list.
m More than 1 year ago
and Honor Code, And Vinceremos and General A rod
Edward More than 1 year ago
Wait, wait. Is this real y an article about how many supposed Kentucky Derby horses don't make it to the gate? Talk about a "DUH"! moment. Who caress about 2 year old champions anyway. They basically are all no hopers on the Derby anyways so it is a stretch to call them Derby horses in December.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
You are preaching to the choir.2yo champion pointless since Bc started +1000 from me
Scott More than 1 year ago
This is pretty much a true statement, but there have been a couple 2 year old champions that performed on Derby Day. Most notably was Street Sense who not only won the BC Juvenille, but also won the Derby. It's worth noting that SS won the Juvenille when the Breeder's Cup was run at Churchill. I suspect that this was definitely not a coincidence. I'd have to look it up, but wasn't Lookin at Lucky a 2 year old champ? If he wasn't then it was because he just missed to Duke of York in the BC Juvenille. While he didn't even hit the board in the Derby, most would have to agree that the 1 hole did this poorly named horse in more than his actual talent. Talk about poorly named though, he should have been Lookin at Unlucky! 1 hole in the Derby, far outside in both the Juvenille and the BCC. He's one I would have really liked seen run at 4. Ah, to dream.