Are four career starts enough?

Contemporary horses campaign much less rigorously than their forebears, and many old guidelines about proper Kentucky Derby preparation have fallen by the wayside. Once it seemed necessary to have a final prep race within two weeks of the Derby; now horses routinely have a three-, four- or five-week break before the first Saturday in May. Horses don't make as many pre-Derby starts as they used to, and no modern-day thoroughbred would race 28 times before the Derby as Carry Back did in 1961. But 3-year-olds still need enough experience to be fit enough for the demands of the Derby. How many starts should they have before the first Saturday in May? History says at least five. No horse with four or fewer starts has won the Derby since 1918, when Exterminator did it. Since then, 28 have tried and failed. Two of the prime contenders in this year's field will attempt to win after racing only four times: Dialed In, the Florida Derby winner, and Midnight Interlude, the Santa Anita Derby winner. They will either consign to the dustbin another of the "rules" for Derby preparation or else add their names to a long list of failures. The horses since 1900 who came into the Derby with four or fewer starts:

Year Horse Finish
1902 Alan-a-Dale 1st
1918 Exterminator 1st
1942 Hollywood 9th
1948 Coaltown 2nd
1971 Fourulla 19th
1972 Big Spruce 7th
1974 Sir Tristram 11th
1975 Media 5th
1982 Air Forbes Won 7th
1984 Majestic Shore DNF
1986 Wheatly Hall 6th
1991 Corporate Report 9th
Alydavid 14th
1994 Strodes Creek 2nd
1995 Ski Captain 14th
1998 Indian Charlie 3rd
1999 Stephen Got Even 14th
2000 Curule 7th
War Chant 9th
Trippi 11th
2001 Congaree 3rd
2002 Medaglia d'Oro 4th
2004 Tapit 9th
2005 Flower Alley 9th
Greeley's Galaxy 11th
High Limit 20th
2007 Tiago 7th
2008 Denis of Cork 3rd
2009 Summer Bird 6th
Dunkirk 11th

By Andrew Beyer - The Washington Post. Published May 4, 2011.