Most horseplayers love to devise mechanical systems for picking winners or hard-and-fast rules for handicapping, but their quest is invariably futile. Thoroughbred racing is so complex, so changeable, that it will yield no easy answers.
Even so, I cannot resist tinkering with systems when the Kentucky Derby approaches. The Derby is such a unique race that it might well be governed by the same factors years after year. (Witness the performance of the Dosage System of pedigree analysis. Utterly irrelevant 364 days a year, it has had magical predictive powers on the first Saturday in May.) Besides, my normal handicapping methods have proved so inadequate at Churchill Downs over the years that I am willing to grasp at any straw.
In recent days, I have been poring over Daily Racing Form past performance for Derbies of yore, looking for common threads that connect winners and losers in recent history. From this research, I have formulated one innocuous-sounding requirement for a horse to be considered a genuine Derby contender:
As a 2-year-old, a horse must have finished in the money in a stakes race at a mile or more.
The efficiency of this rule in weeding out noncontenders has been truly amazing. In the 1980s, 67 Derby starters (or nearly half of the 144 horses who went to the post) failed to qualify. Not one of them won the Derby, and only one managed to finish second. Every year the rule has rejected horses who were considered solid contenders--Cryptoclearance in 1987, Badger Land in 1986, Proud Truth in 1985, the favorite Marfa in 1983, etc.
The last horse who won the Derby without the necessary 2-year-old credentials was Bold Forbes in 1976.
Admittedly, it is possible (and, indeed, easy) to look at the results of races that have already been run and tailor a system to fit them. A handicapper could have achieved notable success during the 1980s by eliminating any Derby entrant with the letter "M" in his name. But the rule about 2-year-old form seems to be rooted in logic, and sheds light on the special nature of the Kentucky Derby.
Handicappers trying to ferret out the Derby winner usually focus their attention on the important prep races. But to win this demanding test a horse must have the necessary overall preparation, too, including a foundation laid the previous year.
Joggers who have trained to run in a marathon understand this principle well. They know they have to train steadily for months to go 26 miles; if they try to cram too much hard running into too short a period before a marathon, they will only succeed in getting hurt.
For a 2-year-old to reach the point that he can run well at a distance against decent company, he must have a good foundation of racing and training. Progressing to be ready for 1 miles on the first Saturday in May won't be so difficult. But horses who are just starting to get fit in February or March of their 3-year-old seasons almost always fail in the Derby--no matter how brilliant they may be.
The 1988 embodiment of this late-blooming type is Seeking The Gold, who started his racing career in December and didn't run a mile until he finished second in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct last Saturday. He may be brilliant, but he can't win the Derby.
There are plenty of other top contenders who don't fit the criterion for 2-year-old performance, either. Brian's Time, the strong stretch-runner who captured the Florida Derby, doesn't qualify. Neither does the Maryland colt Private Terms. Nor does Winning Colors, the filly who ran away with the Santa Anita Derby. And those are the most logical candidates for success at Churchill Downs. The lessons of history thus suggest that this will be a very tough year to pick the winner of the Derby--which is just where we started.