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In Derby History, Three Is the Magic Number

By Andrew Beyer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

As trainer Tim Ritchey pondered how to prepare Afleet Alex for the Kentucky Derby, he looked to history for guidance. He discussed his options with Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew to sweep the 1977 Triple Crown, and decided to do what Turner had done: give his colt three prep races as a 3-year-old before sending him to Churchill Downs. Even after an early-season disruption to Afleet Alex's schedule, Ritchey didn't waver: "Three was always the number."

Three has been a magic number. Horses who have tried to win the Derby with fewer prep races have lost in 55 of 56 tries since 1949. The three-prep-race standard is only one of several Derby guidelines whose validity is underscored by decades of results. One might think that all the trainers of a good 3-year-old would pore over the record books as they plan their pre-Derby campaigns.

But they don't. Many share Henry Ford's philosophy that "History is bunk."

Trainers such as Bobby Frankel and Todd Pletcher have achieved great success by bringing horses into stakes races "fresh" -- lightly campaigned, with plenty of time between starts. Their style is antithetical to the methods traditionally used to get horses ready for the Derby. Accordingly, most of the leading contenders are coming into Saturday's race with preparation that the record books would say is insufficient.

For bettors trying to pick the winner, the key handicapping question may be a philosophical one: Does history matter?

Trainers of the past would have disdained the concept of running horses "fresh." They believed horses had to run hard, train hard and run often to be fit for a demanding race such as the Derby. Carry Back had started 28 times before he won the roses in 1961. In many ways, Derby history underscores the importance of sufficient preparation:

· A horse should have raced at least three times as a 3-year-old and at least five times in his career. The last horse to win the Derby with two prep races was Sunny's Halo in 1983. The last to win with only four career starts was Exterminator in 1918.

· A horse should have a race within four weeks of the Derby. The last horse to win after a layoff of five weeks or more was Needles in 1955.

· A horse must have some foundation of experience as a 2-year-old. Not since 1882 has a horse unraced at 2 gone on to win the Derby.

So why would an astute trainer willfully violate these maxims? Pletcher, the 2004 Eclipse Award winner who has three starters in Saturday's field, was asked a question along these lines in a telephone news conference last week. He responded that the historical guidelines are "very overrated." He argued: "Those statistics are a little bit skewed. If all the [major] prep races are run two and three weeks before the Derby, the better horses are running in those races and they're going to be successful in the Derby."

Frankel, whose colt High Limit will go into the Derby with only two prep races, argued forcibly for the virtues of such light preparation. "Everything has changed," he said, "and the reason it has changed is that obviously what we're doing now works. We've found out that having your horses fresh in these kinds of races . . . they run their best races."

Nick Zito's five Derby entrants include a pair coming off a five-week layoff and one who has had only two prep races. Zito is a traditionalist at heart; he won his first Derby by giving Strike the Gold classic, solid preparation. But he is also a realist. "Strike the Gold was a throwback. The thing I know is that they don't make horses like they did [in the past]."

Because most contemporary horses can't withstand hard campaigns, Zito has learned to manage them with a lighter touch. He babied Birdstone last season, giving him long rests between races, and won both the Belmont and Travers Stakes.

It is hard to argue with the success of modern trainers who bring horses into major races with light preparation. But if there is any one race where their approach is flawed, that race is the Kentucky Derby. Frankel and Pletcher, the apostles of freshness, have a combined record of 0 for 16 in the Churchill Downs classic.

The Derby is the most stressful race in America: Young horses are asked to race a distance they have never attempted and one that is beyond the genetic capabilities of most of them. In a 20-horse field they will be jostled and bumped and hustled to secure a good tactical position. Horses need racing experience more than freshness to be ready for these challenges.

Even as training methods have changed in recent years, plenty of evidence continues to support that importance of sufficient seasoning in the Derby. Among the horses who went into the Derby with only two prep races were Victory Gallop (1998), Lemon Drop Kid (1999), Point Given (2001) and Birdstone (2004). All of them lost in Kentucky, but all came back to win another race in the Triple Crown series. Point Given, after a lifeless performance at Churchill Downs, overpowered the same rivals in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. It is reasonable to conclude that these talented colts lost the Derby because they weren't quite fit enough.

Of the seven leading contenders for the 2005 Derby (according to the Daily Racing Form rankings), five fail to measure up by historical standards. Bellamy Road and High Limit have had only two prep races this year. High Fly and Noble Causeway haven't raced in five weeks. Greeley's Galaxy has only four career starts and didn't race at 2.

With so many horses entering the race after light campaigns, the odds are that one of them will win and surmount one precedent or another. But if Afleet Alex earns a blanket of roses Saturday after racing three times this season and six times as a 2-year-old, he will underscore the value of sufficient preparation and the importance of history.

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