05/01/2007 11:00PM

Sorry, Curlin - some rules won't break


WASHINGTON - Of the 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby, only one possesses a record suggesting that he may be a full-fledged Thoroughbred star. Curlin has made three starts in his career, winning them by a combined total of more than 28 lengths. When he overpowered his rivals in the Arkansas Derby, he instantly became the favorite for Saturday's race.

He has virtues that all bettors can recognize. He has a top trainer. He has a good pedigree. He has a combination of early speed and a strong finishing kick. He has earned a better Beyer Speed Figure as a 3-year-old than any of the other Derby entrants.

Curlin has only one significant flaw: He lacks the racing experience that Derby winners usually possess. This could be a fatal flaw, because more than a century of historical evidence says the colt doesn't have the proper resume to succeed at Churchill Downs.

After Curlin won his racing debut impressively at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3, three owners formed a partnership to buy him for $3.5 million and placed him in the care of trainer Steve Asmussen. Curlin put his name on the list of Derby contenders the next month when he won a stakes race at Oaklawn Park, and he went to the top of the list after the Arkansas Derby. In order to win on Saturday, he must defy these precedents:

* No horse with four or fewer career starts has won the Kentucky Derby since Exterminator in 1918. Twenty-nine horses - including some very good ones - have tried and failed.

* No horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. Forty such horses have tried and failed since 1970. In that same period, 87 starters didn't have at least two races at 2, and only one - Fusaichi Pegasus - was successful.

Is this history relevant to Curlin? That is a crucial question for anyone handicapping the Derby.

These statistics are partly drawn from an era when Thoroughbreds were tougher and training styles were much different from those of today. Colts used to have rigorous pre-Derby campaigns; Carry Back raced 28 times before the 1961 Derby. But modern-day trainers prefer to run a horse "fresh" - by racing him sparingly and gearing him up for well-spaced objectives. As training styles change, old precepts governing the Derby seem less relevant.

Before 2006, history dictated that a horse needed a prep race within four weeks of the Derby. The last winner who had violated this rule was Needles in 1956. But Barbaro ran for the roses five weeks after winning the Florida Derby, and the layoff didn't stop him from scoring a brilliant victory. This year nobody is mentioning the five-week rule.

In a Daily Racing Form column recently, Byron King debunked the historical guidelines and declared, "The Derby should be handicapping like any other race . . . not on statistical 'rules' that the media overemphasizes." But there is a fallacy in this argument.

The Derby is not like any other race. Young horses are being asked to go a distance that they have never attempted before. They are asked to cope with the rough-and-tumble circumstances of a 20-horse field - something they will never encounter on any other day of their lives. They are often forced to deal with an early pace that is unusually demanding for such a long race.

Anybody who has ever run a marathon knows what it takes to be fit for an extraordinary physical test. An athlete needs a foundation of fitness that is built over a period of months. If he tries to train extra-hard and squeeze his preparation into too short a period of time, he's not going to succeed. Most likely, he'll do what marathoners call "hitting the wall."

The evidence is abundant: A Thoroughbred cannot acquire the preparation to run 1 1/4 miles in only three or four career starts.

The other historical rule - that a Derby starter must have raced as a 2-year-old - looks as if it might be a statistical quirk. Why should a horse's performance on the first Saturday in May be affected by what he did a year earlier? I once put this question to Carl Nafzger (who trains Curlin's main rival, Street Sense), and he replied: "When a horse runs even one race as a 2-year-old, he had to get fit to get there, and he gets a lot of experience." Behind a single inconsequential-looking race in the past performances, there are months of training that are a crucial part of the animal's overall preparation.

The people connected with Curlin recognize that their colt is facing a tough task, but they believe he may overcome his lack of experience because of his exceptional talent.

"I know we're bucking the trend of history," said part-owner Satish Sanan, "but if it can be done, this horse is going to do it. This is a tremendous beast."

But even tremendous beasts don't win the Kentucky Derby without sufficient preparation. Although Barbaro is cited as a horse who broke the Derby "rules," he came to Churchill Downs with a solid foundation - five races at a mile or more, four of them stakes. Curlin has no such foundation. He started his career too late; he hasn't raced enough; he has raced beyond a mile only twice; he hasn't faced top-class competition. He has everything against him. His status as the Derby favorite defies all logic. He'll be lucky to finish in the top 10.

(c) 2007 Washington Post