Air Forbes Won ought to win the $150,000 Wood Memorial Stakes Saturday, and if he does he will go from Aqueduct to Churchill Downs with an unblemished record. But the great trainers of the last generation, as well as some contemporary ones, will be shaking their heads in dismay over the way this horse has been prepared for the Kentucky Derby.
The philosophy and practice of training a colt for the Triple Crown events has undergone a dramatic change in the last decade, and trainer Frank LaBoccetta's handling of Air Forbes Won epitomizes the new trends. While 3-year-olds once were drilled hard and campaigned extensively so they could go a mile and one-quarter, Air Forbes Won has been raced only three times in his career. He won a six-furlong maiden race, a seven-furlong allowance race and the one-mile Gotham Stakes. When he meets a weak field in the Wood, it will be his first race at a mile and one-eighth and his first around two turns.
That schedule is quite a contrast with the way the legendary Ben Jones prepared Calumet Farm's Citation in 1948. Citation was raced nine times as a 2-year-old, then sent to Florida and won three major stakes at a mile and one-eighth. From there he went to Kentucky, where he won the Derby Trial and, four days later, the Derby itself.
"The old trainers put an emphasis on seasoning," said John Veitch, the present trainer for Calumet. "They felt that the more seasoning a horse had, the better the chance was of getting him to go a mile and a quarter. If you're going to run in the Boston marathon, you need more than a couple races behind you, and it's the same with horses at the Derby distance. But now, instead of hearing people say they want a seasoned horse for the Derby, you hear them say they want a 'fresh' horse. Fashions have changed."
LaBoccetta wants a fresh horse, and he has one. "I personally think he couldn't come up to the race any better," the trainer said. "He's just seasoned enough."
LaBoccetta suggested that one of the reasons that training philosophies have changed is the change in racing surfaces. "The tracks are different now and they'll carry a horse farther," he said. Air Forbes Won doesn't have to be so "seasoned" to run 1 1/4 miles in 2:02 as Count Fleet did to slog his way in 2:04 on a deep, tiring Churchill Downs strip in 1943.
Another reason for the change in training methods may have been the one great drawback of the old style. Campaigning a 3-year-old so extensively before the Kentucky Derby had to take a toll somewhere down the line. This may have accounted for the fact that no horse managed to sweep the Triple Crown series between 1948 and 1973.
If any one person can be credited for the revolution in training techniques, it is Lucien Laurin, who broke the Triple Crown drought in 1973 with Secretariat. A year earlier, Laurin was training the defending 2-year-old champion, Riva Ridge, and didn't want him to emulate a long succession of 2-year-old champions who had flopped in the 3-year-old classics. So he mapped a schedule that was designed to keep the colt fresh. Riva Ridge ran twice in Florida, won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, then went to the Derby. All week long, interviewers peppered Laurin with the same questions: Had Riva Ridge done enough? Could a horse possibly win an event as demanding as the Derby with only three prep races?
Riva Ridge gave an eloquent answer to these questions as he won the Derby with authority, and a trend had begun. Seattle Slew had raced only six times in his life before he went to Kentucky, and he swept the Triple Crown. Genuine Risk, in her 3-year-old season, had won only two allowance races and had finished third in the Wood Memorial before she made history in the Kentucky Derby. Pleasant Colony raced only three times at 3 before he won the Derby.
Still, since 1883 no horse has succeeded at Churchill Downs with as little seasoning as Air Forbes Won. If he wins here Saturday and in Louisville in two weeks, the book on training classic horses will have to be rewritten even further.