Jay Hovdey’s provocative Daily Racing Form article “Troubling Trend Among Derby Winners” lit up horse racing forums this past weekend, with its criticism of the apparent lack of quality when comparing 21st century Kentucky Derby winners with those of the recent past. While he makes some valid points about the unnecessarily-large Derby field and how some connections unfortunately get caught up in Derby fever, the underlying suggestion is the winners themselves leave much to be desired as race horses. Of course, if this is true, it begs the question as to which non-Derby winners deserved to win and didn’t—if such a horse exists. Sorry, but it sure wasn’t Pioneerof the Nile. His criticism is also patently unfair to Smarty Jones who was undefeated before and after the Derby, and to Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin, the first three finishers in 2007 who went on to complete fine 3-year-old campaigns—not to mention Curlin winning four G1 races at four, including the Dubai World Cup.
While these things go in cycles, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that American breeding practices have changed in the past few decades, as precocious speed not stamina (or soundness) is in vogue, and young horses are being rushed to the more profitable breeding shed rather than remaining on the race track. Many of the best horses are also trained by the same small number of corporate-style trainers who maneuver through condition books like an investor examining a prospectus, so the best horses aren’t often matched up enough to hone their competitive skills. Still, there is no way the best horses are going to skip the Kentucky Derby in favor of the Preakness, regardless of the bonus money Stronach is proposing to promote his own tracks.
The bigger issue that begs to be raised—highlighted by its absence in Hovdey’s lament—is the continuing and unjustifiably subservient position 3-year-old fillies hold relative to 3-year-old males in American racing. We are disproportionately obsessed with 3-year-old males on their quest for the Triple Crown, yet fail to appreciate the fine performances of fillies that, in some cases, are not entered in the Kentucky Derby because of old-fashioned notions about mixed-company racing that are regularly proven incorrect throughout the rest of the racing world where the best run against the best, regardless. Less than a hundred years ago, when the Kentucky Oaks and Derby were spaced a week or so apart, the best fillies from the Oaks took on the boys in Derby, like 1918 Oaks winner Viva America who finished third behind Exterminator, or 1921 Oaks runner-up Prudery finished third behind Behave Yourself.
So, while grieving for the perceived lack of quality in our Derby victors since 2000, how about a big shout-out for the likes of Kentucky Oaks winners such as Rachel Alexandra, Proud Spell, Rags to Riches, Ashado, and Farda Amiga, as well as place-getters Pure Clan, Octave, Ermine, Wait a While, and Madcap Escapade who enjoyed success beyond their classic achievements. Call it the glass half-full, rather than half-empty syndrome.