09/09/2010 3:11PM

Troubling trend among Derby winners

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Barbara D. Livingston
Super Saver, winner of this year's Kentucky Derby, is winless in three starts since the Derby.

Horse racing has a public-relations problem. No, not that one. Not that one either. Okay, horse racing has a lot of public-relations problems, stacked up like planes trying to land at O’Hare. Dealing with them one at a time keeps the honest brokers working around the clock, and more power to them. But there is one nasty itch that is starting to spread like a rash – less than an epidemic but more than a trend – and people are beginning to notice.

Kentucky Derby winners are really starting to leave a lot to be desired.

This is unfair, of course, to the people who invest an immense amount of time, talent, and treasure in winning America’s most famous horse race. Those moments on the winner’s stand at Churchill Downs are beyond priceless – an “out of body experience,” as Bill Casner described his turn in the spotlight last May with Super Saver – and no one would ever begrudge anyone the thrill.

But the game deserves a Derby winner of which it can be proud, and nothing that has happened lately puts them anywhere near the quality of Silver Charm, Unbridled, Sunday Silence, Alysheba, or Ferdinand, let alone those giants of the 1970s, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid.

By finishing 10th in the recent Travers, Super Saver failed to hit the board for the third time in three starts since his Derby victory. This was distressing, especially in light of the fact that one week later, in the Woodward Stakes, Mine That Bird lost his eighth straight start since his Kentucky Derby win of 2009.

The two previous Derby winners – Big Brown in 2008 and Street Sense in ‘07 – at least had the decency to repeat their best form in key races after their big day at Churchill Downs. Both, though, were retired before it was revealed what kind of 4-year-olds they’d be. Before that came Barbaro, whose career ended in the Preakness, and Giacomo, who managed but one win in eight subsequent starts.

And on and on. Monarchos, the fastest Derby winner since Secretariat, never won again. Derby winners Smarty Jones, Fusiachi Pegasus, and Charismatic, for all their flash-in-the pan appeal, each won but a single race the rest of their time on the track. War Emblem did manage a pair of good wins, then left the stage early, only to have what was left of his reputation ridiculed when he was revealed to be, in reproductive terms, a shy breeder.

In fact, of all the 21st century Derby winners, only 2003 winner Funny Cide had a career that can be called even remotely satisfying by traditional standards. As a gelding, he had few choices. And yes, he lost more often than he won. But he continued to hit the board in good races, and he went into retirement with dignity. He also was the first Derby winner since Affirmed to later take the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which must be worth something.

It is possible that the effort to win the Derby takes an inordinate toll on a young colt, rendering them incapable of sustaining the excellence of that day over the course of a subsequent career.

Then again, the race itself could present a false positive, at least when it comes to judging the quality of the winner. The almost mandatory 20-horse field (vigorously hustled by Churchill Downs officials) requires the placement of the starting gates to the automatic disadvantage of certain runners. Traffic trouble and the unique track condition of Churchill Downs in a wet spring can eliminate any number of contenders.

In a sense, the Kentucky Derby has become America’s version of the Grand National, over those fearsome 30 jumps at Aintree, or Italy’s Il Palio, where horses scramble through the streets of Siena. The winners of such events are more accurately described as survivors, linked viscerally to the traditions of using horses in war, and once they have won they carry the mantle of their victory forever.

In the United States, it is accepted as impossible to fight Derby fever as if the strain has no known antibodies, and anyway, it feels so good.

Still, as the Derby has been progressively corporatized, to the point that its very name has been purchased by the Yum! Brands conglomerate of fast-food chains, the actual race itself has been shoved to the margins. After all, it’s only two minutes. The real point of the Kentucky Derby seems more and more rooted in the anticipation, the parades, the steamboat races, the corporate suites, the merchandising, and the constant feeding of a multimedia beast that aids and abets the process.

Don’t look for the Derby to change much from within. But now, with a newly constituted ownership in the form of MI Developments, the Preakness Stakes might be on the brink of a game-altering development. The recently announced plans to offer $5.5 million in bonus money to the connections of a Preakness winner who also won certain races at other MID tracks sets up the proposition that more horsemen might just pass the Derby to have a fresh horse for the middle jewel in the Triple Crown.

If this sounds familiar, it happened a quarter-century ago when Robert Brennan created his multi-million dollar bonus linked to the series of 3-year-old races at his Garden State Park. In winning the 1985 Derby, Spend a Buck became eligible, so his people blew off the Preakness and the Belmont to chase the cash, and caught it.

An amped-up Preakness could have a similar effect on the Derby, especially if it sucks away the winners of the Santa Anita and Florida derbies. Even so, save the tears. There will be a Kentucky Derby winner, and he will be the most famous horse in the land. It would be great, though, if for a change he also could be the best.