Second off layoff angle is powerful in Kentucky Derby preps

March 27th, 2024

When a horse shows talent racing on dirt at age two, the Kentucky Derby (G1) often becomes a long-term goal. But getting a horse to peak on Derby day isn’t easy.

Graded stakes-winning two-year-olds are often given a short break from racing during the winter. When they return to action at age three, they haven’t always trained hard enough to deliver a peak performance in their first start back. The goal is to leave room for improvement through the spring, ideally leading to a career-best performance on the first Saturday in May.

This produces an interesting effect: a tendency for accomplished two-year-olds to run below form in their first start at age three, then bounce back in their second run of the season. This “second off the layoff” angle consistently reaps dividends.

Examples abound from recent years. Good Magic was voted champion two-year-old male of 2017 after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Following a winter break, he was beaten in his three-year-old debut, finishing third as the 7-10 favorite in the Fountain of Youth (G2). But in his second start back, Good Magic rebounded to win the Blue Grass (G2) at more enticing 8-5 odds.

Classic Empire likewise earned champion two-year-old male honors after winning the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). He suffered a shocking defeat in his sophomore debut, finishing third at 1-2 in the Holy Bull (G2), but in his second run of 2017 he won the Arkansas Derby (G1) at 19-10.

Brody’s Cause won the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and ran third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) during a productive 2015 two-year-old campaign. He was favored at 2-1 to win his three-year-old debut in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), but finished a surprising seventh. No matter—Brody’s Cause bounced back in his second run of the season, winning the Blue Grass (G1) at 4-1.

Dullahan followed a similar path in 2016-17. After winning the Breeders’ Futurity and finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he returned from a winter layoff to finish second in the Palm Beach (G3). One month later, he won the Blue Grass (G1) at 3-1.

In 2017, Enticed won the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) before taking a winter break. In this three-year-old debut, he ran fourth as the 19-10 favorite in the Holy Bull (G2), but quickly bounced back to take the Gotham (G3) at 3-1.

Gunnevera won the Saratoga Special (G2) and Delta Downs Jackpot (G2) as a juvenile. He took some time off, then started his three-year-old season with a runner-up finish in the 2017 Holy Bull (G2). A few weeks later, he dominated the Fountain of Youth (G2) by 5 3/4 lengths at 4-1.

As a juvenile, Mo Donegal battled to victory in the 2021 Remsen (G2). He started his three-year-old campaign by finishing third as the 17-10 favorite in the Holy Bull (G3), but subsequently shrugged off that defeat to win the Wood Memorial (G2) as the 2-1 second choice.

Vekoma was a determined winner of the 2018 Nashua (G3) at age two. When he returned as a three-year-old in the Fountain of Youth (G2), he was beaten to third place. That didn’t stop him from bouncing back in his second run of the season to win the Blue Grass (G2) by 3 1/2 lengths as the 7-5 favorite.

A horse doesn’t have to win his second start back for this angle to be profitable. Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Honor Marie struggled when making his three-year-old debut in the 2024 Risen Star (G2), finishing fifth. He was a 7-1 longshot in his second run of the season, a competitive renewal of the Louisiana Derby (G2), and he outran expectations to finish second. The $2 exacta with logical 3-1 winner Catching Freedom on top paid $78.20.

The next time you see a graded stakes-winning juvenile take time off over the winter with an eye toward the Kentucky Derby, anticipate two possibilities. One, that they might lose their first start as a three-year-old. Second, that they’ll rebound (perhaps at nice odds) in their second start off the layoff.