Apollo 1882
Apollo – 1882

Apollo casts a long shadow but curses made to be broken

What does the Kentucky Derby hold for future contenders, what can we learn from the past?

One of the longest-standing trends in sports, the Curse of Apollo has stretched 136 years since the eighth running of the Kentucky Derby in 1882. That’s when Apollo became the lone horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.

It’s stood the test of time so far but training methods have changed and horses are more lightly raced than ever before.

“I think trends with the winners in terms of days between races and number of preps has been changing the last 10-15 years, so it’s only a matter of time before this one changes, too,” leading trainer and two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher said after the final round of Kentucky Derby prep races. “With two of the top choices this year (being unraced juveniles), we’ll certainly be testing the curse.”

Experience is no longer a hallmark for Kentucky Derby contenders.

The clear favorite this year, Justify, is one of the horses Pletcher referenced. A brilliant winner in three career starts for trainer Bob Baffert, Justify didn’t make his first outing until February 18.
Pletcher trains Magnum Moon, who is unbeaten from four attempts after making his initial start on January 13. The Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes winner is projected to be the third choice in Kentucky Derby wagering on May 5.

History may not be on their side but bettors won’t be dismayed by the curse, opting for talent over experience in the Run for the Roses.

“It takes a special horse to do (what Justify and Magnum Moon have accomplished) and special horses can overcome trends,” said Darren Rogers, Senior Director of Communications and Media Services at Churchill Downs.

Magnum Moon
Magnum Moon (Coady Photo/Oaklawn Park)

Changing Tide

Horses used to make at least three starts at age 3 prior to entering the Kentucky Derby starting gate. In 1999, Charismatic raced seven times during the four-month span (January-April) and delivered a fourth Kentucky Derby victory to legendary horseman D. Wayne Lukas.

A seismic change occurred in 2007 when Street Sense received only two prep races beforehand. He started a new trend in which virtually every accomplished 2-year-old makes only two starts before getting to Churchill Downs.

Eight of the last 11 Kentucky Derby winners raced only twice and the trio who didn’t (Orb, California Chrome and Always Dreaming) were unaccomplished juveniles who didn’t open their 3-year-old season in a graded stakes race.

Two starts do remain a baseline with no horse winning the Kentucky Derby in modern times with less. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Arazi, who was based in France, famously faltered as the 4-5 favorite in the 1992 Kentucky Derby after racing only once at age 3. European horses have won the 1 ½-mile English Derby on turf in their first or second start of the year, but it’s a different ballgame on dirt.

Coolmore Racing and trainer Aidan O’Brien learned the hard way. Their first Kentucky Derby starters, 2-year-old champion Johannesburg and turf stakes winner Castle Gandolfo, raced only once before finishing 8th and 12th in 2002. After a nine-year absence, they continued to defy conventional Kentucky Derby standards by prepping Master of Hounds (5th), Daddy Long Legs (DNF, eased) and Lines of Battle (7th) only once before contesting the 2011-13 editions of the Kentucky Derby.

The Irish-based connections won’t make the same mistake in 2018 with Mendelssohn, who established himself as the probable second choice in the Kentucky Derby wagering recording an 18-length win in the U.A.E. Derby on March 31. O’Brien brought the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner back three weeks earlier in a one-mile Polytrack stakes in Ireland so Mendelssohn has two starts under him.


Mendelssohn (Dubai Racing Club)

Still Meaningful

Experience may not be as important as it once was but connections still prefer to have at least one start at age 2 for Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

“I think (experience) helps, I think that foundation means something,” said Dale Romans, who has twice finished third and will send out a pair of Kentucky Derby starters this year. “You’re going a mile and a quarter. Another thing that helps is (running in) big fields – that’s always a plus going into the Derby.”

Most stakes races are limited to 14 horses and the Kentucky Derby features a field of 20. It’s also the first time horses will race at the 1 ¼-mile distance.

With a high-powered stallion roster and extensive breeding and racing programs, WinStar Farm is one of the most prominent Thoroughbred operations worldwide. The Versailles, Kentucky, farm bred Kentucky Derby winners Funny Cide (2003) and Super Saver (2010) and campaigned Super Saver.

With three runners in the 2018 field (Santa Anita Derby winner Justify, Florida Derby winner Audible and Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy), WinStar Farm will move into third all-time by starts for owners (21).

“We try to run 2-year-olds but we don’t try to make the biggest 2-year-old races,” WinStar Farm CEO and President Elliott Walden said. “It’s all a progression to try to get to the spring of their 3-year-old season. Our history has not been to really push horses as 2-year-olds, if you think about a lot of our Kentucky Derby starters, a lot of them came to hand in the fall.”

Audible and Noble Indy raced at age 2 for WinStar Farm and Walden explained why Justify made a belated career debut.

“(Justify) was breezing last spring and pulled a muscle one day on the track and needed 60 days off,” Walden said. “Even though he didn’t race until February, Justify was one of the advanced (2-year-olds) we had last year. Maybe it was just a little too much for him but he was advancing with all the horses we had at age 2 but he had a setback.”

A former trainer, Walden knows the backstretch of the track as well anyone. The third-generation horseman recorded back-to-back seconds in the Kentucky Derby with Victory Gallop and Menifee in 1998-99, and he isn’t too concerned about Justify’s inexperience.

“Lightly raced horses in the Kentucky Derby, it has been a shift in the last decade but they’re still trained very hard in between starts,” Walden said. “I don’t think anybody would ever say Bob Baffert or Todd Pletcher runs a horse that’s not ready or is green. They’re put through the same paces in the morning (as Kentucky Derby horses in the past) but they don’t run as much as they used to.”

Romans echoed those sentiments when asked about his barn’s Kentucky Derby preparations.
“We train on them hard to get them ready,” Romans said.


The Bottom Line

It’s under serious assault this year and even if Justify and Magnum Moon come up short, the Curse of Apollo has never appeared more vulnerable. Old standards have become less relevant as horses make fewer starts in this new era and we’ve never seen two major contenders like Justify and Magnum Moon in a Kentucky Derby line-up.

“I think it could fall this year based on the talent of the horses themselves,” Rogers said. “The unraced 2-year-olds that are among the favorites, Justify and Magnum Moon, appear to be supremely talented 3-year-olds.”

Curses are made to be broken and the longest one in horse racing could soon be coming to an end.