- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. A few of the trends go back to the days when racing fans circled around the radio for the Kentucky Derby not in front of the high-definition television with a laptop logged on to youbet.com close by and wore the jacket-tie-fedora combination to the track, not the shorts-shirt-ballcap outfit that will flood the Churchill Downs infield Saturday.

The Kentucky Derby always has been a race full of myths and trends, dating back to the late 19th century. And they’re rehashed every year.

Inexperienced horses don’t win.

Horses with a long vacation can’t win.

Former Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victors never win.

“Everybody looks for their angle,” Hard Spun trainer Larry Jones said. “Everybody will find a reason to bet or not bet on some horse. These things aren’t cars. You can’t put them on the spec machine and instantly read, ‘This is what should happen.’”

But this year’s field of 20 which will be finalized tonight are challenging several of these “rules.”

The first Derby in a quarter-century not to include trainers Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito features conditioners who don’t care about what happened back in the day.

“You can look at the historical stats and facts all you want,” said Todd Pletcher, who is expected to have five horses in the race. “But if I do that, I’ll be ignoring the most important data, and that’s what I’m seeing from the horses I’m training.”

Four “rules” in particular are being tested in Saturday’s Derby.

Rule No. 1: Horses that didn’t race as 2-year-olds don’t win.

How it became accepted: The last Kentucky Derby winner not to race as a 2-year-old was Apollo 125 years ago.

To many trainers, this is the most legitimate “rule” because a horse generally needs to be battle-tested, have experience going two runs, have more than two races longer than a mile and go through things like getting dirt kicked in his face and running in traffic.

Still, the likely favorite is Curlin, whose first race was only three months ago. He has raced three times and won by a combined 28 lengths.

“Candidly, when we invested in this horse, we weren’t sure if he would be ready for the Derby,” co-owner Satish Sanan said. “If he hadn’t shown what he did in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby, we would have bypassed the Derby and saved him for the summer.”

Since 1937, 52 horses who didn’t race as 2-year-olds ran in the Derby. The best finish was second by Coaltown in 1948. In the last 30 years, none of the 27 Derby horses who went unraced as juveniles finished better than seventh. The 19 rivals and 1-mile distance become too much to overcome.

“The horses have seasoning and have been in more situations that might prepare them mentally for whatever you can throw at them in the Derby,” Pletcher said.

Tiago trainer John Shirreffs went as far as to race his colt Dec. 26 to semi-insure he wasn’t jinxed.

“If we can eliminate one of them, I will,” he said. “But I always felt like experience is very important to a horse, so the more they run, the more it will help them.”

cRule No. 2: A long pre-Derby layoff equals little chance of winning.

How it became accepted: Before Barbaro, the last horse to win with a layoff of five weeks or more was Needles in 1956.

Trainer Michael Matz was questioned repeatedly last year about taking Barbaro straight from the Florida Derby to the Kentucky Derby. He ended up winning by 6 lengths, the largest margin of victory in 50 years.

Partly because it worked for Barbaro, other trainers have followed suit. Imawildandcrazyguy, Scat Daddy and Stormello prepped in the Florida Derby five weeks ago. Circular Quay and Hard Spun are coming in off eight- and six-week breaks, respectively.

Because the Derby is the longest race the horses will have run in their careers and the early fractions are usually swift, some trainers have opted to train up to the race instead of competing three to four weeks beforehand.

“I don’t believe the eight weeks will be an excuse,” Pletcher said of Circular Quay. “By him being fresher, I’m hoping that he’ll be 18-20 lengths out of it early instead of 25 lengths.”

Said Jones: “After the Lane’s End, we felt we were where we needed to be and didn’t feel like we needed another race. Six weeks is only a week longer than he had between the Southwest and Lane’s End, and he won going away.”

Rule No. 3: A horse needs at least three Derby prep races and more than three career starts.

How it became accepted: Only two horses in the last 60 years Jet Pilot in 1947 and Sunny’s Halo in 1983 had two 3-year old races entering the Derby. The last Derby winner to have only three previous career starts was Regret in 1915.

For years, three prep races and/or six to seven career starts have been the most common routes to Louisville.

This year, Street Sense, Circular Quay, Great Hunter and Dominican all had just two tuneup races. And Curlin has only three career starts.

“The drawback on Curlin is when people will say, ‘, he didn’t beat anybody,’” Jones said. “Maybe he didn’t. But he beat them the right away. People will want to throw Curlin out of the mix because people think he can’t win off just three races and then he’ll fold trying to make a mile-and-a-quarter.”

Street Sense trainer Carl Nafzger mapped out his plan following the Breeders’ Cup. Street Sense ran five times as a 2-year-old so he had been in some battles. Nafzger figured the Tampa Bay Derby on March 17 and the Blue Grass on April 14 would be enough to get his colt ready for the Derby.

Rule No. 4: The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner will not win the Derby.

How it became accepted: The crown jewel for 2-year-olds is the Juvenile. Of the race’s 22 winners, none has captured the Derby.

This would doom Street Sense’s chances. Granted, this rule also includes a bunch of luck.

Nine Juvenile winners including 2005 winner Stevie Wonderboy didn’t even run in the Derby. The average Derby finish of the 13 who did make it is 7.3. The best finishes are third-place efforts by Chief’s Crown (1985) and Timber Country (1995).

But with breaking the string in mind, Nafzger raced Street Sense only two times to keep his horse fresh.

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