Updated on 09/17/2011 9:59AM

Seasoning the key to winning Derby recipe


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When Badge of Silver drew away to win a stakes race at the Fair Grounds by 10 lengths, he looked as if he may be the most talented horse of his generation and the leading contender for the Kentucky Derby. Undefeated in three starts, he could be a superstar in the making.

The colt's only liability as a Derby prospect is his lack of experience, and trainer Ronny Werner will be challenged to have the colt sufficiently fit and seasoned by the first Saturday in May. Owner Ken Ramsey has his own ideas about the ideal racing schedule for Badge of Silver, but his plan could wind up hurting the youngster's chances.

Ramsey acquired his Derby prospect when, in fact, he expected to get a fast, precocious 2-year-old. A Kentuckian, Ramsey loves to be the top race-winning owner at the tracks in his home state, and he has been No. 1 at Churchill Downs repeatedly. But one year he was edged for the title at Keeneland because Werner sent out a succession of 2-year-old first-time starters for a rival owner. Ramsey introduced himself to Werner and asked, "What do I have to do to get a 2-year-old winner?"

The trainer suggested that Ramsey delegate him to go to a sale and buy some young prospects. He wound up purchasing 10 - one of whom was an $85,000 son of the stallion Silver Deputy.

Werner did what he was hired to do: He revved up Badge of Silver to win his debut in a maiden race at Keeneland - by 11 lengths. But there is a downside to revving up young horses early. Ramsey said, "Ten out of 10 came back to the farm" with physical problems. Badge of Silver had suffered a hairline crack in a cannon bone and was sidelined for the rest of the year. When handicappers started looking at prospects for the 2003 Derby, he was a forgotten horse.

He returned to action at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 23, winning a six-furlong allowance race by seven lengths in exceptionally fast time. Even so, he seemed a doubtful Derby prospect because he looked like a one-dimensional speedster, and Werner is best known as a trainer of sprinters. Both of those reputations were altered when Badge of Silver ran in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 16. He faced a difficult set of obstacles, for he was stepping up sharply, running beyond a mile for the first time, and facing other speed horses who would prevent him from getting a clear lead. Nothing fazed him. He battled head-and-head for the lead with a formidable rival, raced him into defeat, and overpowered the opposition, missing the stakes record by one one-hundredth of a second. His earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 - the second-best figure by any member of his generation in a race at a mile or longer. And unlike most of the other top 3-year-olds who have run fast, Badge of Silver has a pedigree that seems reasonably well suited to the Kentucky Derby distance.

Ramsey understands that meddlesome owners are generally considered anathema in the horse business, and he is quick to say, "I don't micromanage my other businesses." He has, however, been actively involved in the Thoroughbred game since the 1960's and is a serious student of the sport, so he started contemplating the best way to prepare his colt for the Derby. A believer in Len Ragozin's speed-figure sheets, he said, "I believe in the bounce theory" - the concept that a peak effort by a horse is generally followed by a regression, or a bounce, if he runs back too quickly. So although everybody expected Badge of Silver to run next in the March 9 Louisiana Derby, Ramsey told Daily Racing Form that he would like to skip that race and give Badge of Silver just one more prep race: the Illinois Derby on April 7.

This plan would be in keeping with the popular strategy of bringing horses into major objectives "fresh" - with limited, well-spaced prep races. But such a concept doesn't necessarily apply to the Kentucky Derby; the race is so demanding that horses need the seasoning of tough prep races. European horses have proved this point in recent years, flopping at Churchill Downs after brief 3-year-old campaigns. Decades of Derby history prove it, too. If Badge of Silver were to have only one more prep race, he would have only four career starts before the Derby, and no such horse has won the Derby since 1918.

The Derby is won by colts with solid, orthodox preparation and the seasoning of tough competition, and this is what Badge of Silver needs. Fortunately, Ramsey is reconsidering his ideas and says he will defer to the judgment of his trainer, who is inclined to go in the Louisiana Derby next. He has confidence in Werner, even though the trainer will be a rookie in the Triple Crown competition. "He's more than a one-dimensional trainer of speed horses," Ramsey said. "He's truly a horseman."

If Badge of Silver runs in the Louisiana Derby, he will get a formidable test against Kafwain, the Bob Baffert-trained colt who is ranked No. 1 on the Daily Racing Form's list of Derby contenders. The Illinois Derby - legitimized as an important prep race when War Emblem captured it last year - would give him a third solid distance race before he goes to Churchill Downs. He still won't have a great deal of experience, but at least he should have a fair chance to prove that he is the best colt of his generation.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post