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A Kentucky Derby Confession (Or: Going For The Gelding)
Since January, I’ve been writing here about the Kentucky Derby. Horses have joined and fallen off the Derby trail, risen and fallen in expectation, appeared with promise and disappeared with injury or lack of graded earnings.
It would logical to assume, based on the eight Derby-related posts that I’ve written in the last four months, that I can’t wait for the first Saturday in May.
So…I have a confession to make. I am not really a big Kentucky Derby fan.
I get it, I do: I get the hype and the scrutiny and the coverage that starts months in advance of the race. This is, after all, pretty much the only time of year that anyone outside of racing pays attention to the sport, and for at least a couple of weeks, people do actually seem to care who wins horse races—two of them, anyway: the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. And if the same horse happens to win both, people care about who wins the Belmont, and we get three weeks of bonus coverage as people salivate at the thought of the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
I also get the coverage of the Derby as an event: celebrities, big hats, mint juleps. I like that people have Derby parties (especially if wagering is involved). I like that for a few days, racing gets the kind of saturation TV coverage normally reserved for awards shows or oh, maybe the Super Bowl (OK, maybe that’s a little grandiose). Last year, there was even a red carpet at the Derby.
But it’s hard to get worked up about a race that is so anomalous in the context of the sport, and whose result often has so little significance in the post-Derby racing world.
On May 5, 20 3-year-olds are going to the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Twenty. No other Thoroughbred race in North America has 20 starters, and that fact in and of itself means that this race isn’t characteristic, and that horses may not run to form. They’re all running 1 ¼ miles for the first time in their young lives; we can guess, but we won’t know, which ones will “get the distance,” in the sporting vernacular.
OK, you might argue, that’s part of the fun, and I can give you that. And the big field and the chaos factor mean that the odds of competitive horses are going to be higher than they would be in any other race: there’s money to be made if you back the right horse(s). That’s a plus.
So maybe it’s not the actual race, or even the result, that makes me Derby-skeptical. I guess it’s what happens after the race….or rather, what doesn’t happen.
Since 2000, horses that have won the Kentucky Derby have won an average of 1.5 post-Derby races; they’ve averaged 6.4 post-Derby starts, and if you take out the geldings, Funny Cide (2003) and Mine That Bird (2009), the number drops to 3.6. More than half were retired the same year they won the Derby.
Long-term, the economics of racing and breeding make Derby winners a lose-lose for the fans. If we’re lucky enough to get a Derby winner who is actually an accomplished, promising horse, we hold our breaths and hope that we get MAYBE a handful of more chances to see him race before he’s retired.
If we get a fluky Derby winner who got lucky, he’ll play out a mediocre career before he, too, heads to the breeding shed.
So that’s what we have to look forward to? That’s what we all anticipate, months in advance? The most exciting two minutes in sports may well be, in hindsight, the most anticlimactic two minutes in sports.
One can always hope, I guess. My hope would take the form of a supremely talented gelding, one who’d dazzle us on Derby day and go on to a couple of years of domination in the handicap division before settling down to a pampered post-Derby life, albeit one bereft of the charms of the breeding shed.
Our hopes for that are slim this year. In 137 runnings of the Derby, geldings have won only nine times, and this year, only one horse in the top 25 of graded earnings is a gelding: Isn’t He Clever, at #22. I thought that perhaps he could be my Derby horse, but as of this morning, his trainer Steve Asmussen said that he’s no longer under consideration for the race.
The next gelding on the list is All Squared Away; he’s at #29 and not Triple Crown-nominated, so he’s got as much of a shot at running in the race as he does of siring a champion…or anything.
My hope for a gutsy gelding, then, will have to wait for another year, replaced with the hope that maybe this year it will be different, that maybe whoever wins the Kentucky Derby will keep racing for the rest of this year and into next. I won’t hold my breath, though, because when that fully equipped (“intact,” in the vernacular) horse makes it to the winner’s circle, the economics of racing make our chances of seeing him next year about as robust as Isn’t He Clever’s sperm count.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?