Yes. It’s too early.

The last of the straw was still being swept from the stalls that Breeders’ Cup starters had recently inhabited. The buzz from that Classic finish had barely subsided. The 2010 racing calendar listed a number of stakes races that had yet to be run.

But it had started.

It had started on blogs, in columns, and on Twitter. On lists and in predictions. Maybe even, in press boxes across the country, in conversation.

Derby Talk.  2011 Derby Talk.  Six months from now Derby talk.  Half a year from now Derby Talk.

Some began with a shame-faced rhetorical question – “Is it too early to start talking about the Derby?” – before resolutely plowing ahead. Others, more confident, began with a proclamation: “It’s not too early to start talking about the Derby…”

Intoxication infuses optimism, anticipation, eagerness to watch the promise of a two-year-old turn into the accomplishments of a three-year-old.

But I can’t join in. I can’t join the Derby-watchers. I can’t start making lists of two-year-olds. I can’t start speculating about preps.

I can’t do it because a) I’m sorry, but yes, it IS too early. It’s much too early.  The race is six months away. We know almost nothing, at this point, about who’s going to be in the starting gate.  Oh, sure, we’ve got a horse or two that can make us hope… “Is he the one?” … but we get one of those every year (Eskendereya, anyone?), and – sigh – he almost never is. The One. He’s not as good as we thought. He gets hurt. Too often, we are disappointed.

And I can’t do it because b) and I’m sorry, yes, I know that this is sacrilege, but I can’t help it…isn’t this whole Kentucky Derby just a teensy weensy bit over-rated?  Not as an event – seems like it would be a pretty fun time, lots of reveling, big buzz, bourbon, all that, and I hope that I get to my first Derby this year. I’d like that.

But I can’t buy into it being some Big Significant Racing Thing. Let’s look at the last decade of Derby winners and their race records following the Derby. The number in parentheses is the age at which they stopped racing.

2000            Fusaichi Pegasus         3-1-1-0 (3)

2001            Monarchos                     3-0-0-2 (4)

2002            War Emblem                  5-2-0-0 (3)

2003            Funny Cide                   31-7-4-8 (7)

2004            Smarty Jones                2-1-1-0 (3)

2005            Giacomo                          8-1-0-3 (4)

2006            Barbaro                           1-0-0-0 (3)

2007            Street Sense                  5-2-2-0 (3)

2008            Big Brown                      4-3-0-0 (3)

2009            Mine That Bird             9-0-1-2 (4)

2010            Super Saver                   3-0-0-0 (3)

Doesn’t exactly start the heart pounding, does it?  Oh, there are bright spots – Big Brown won all but one of his starts after the Derby; Street Sense compiled a respectable record. But the average number of post-Derby wins since 2000 is a whopping…1.45.  Derby winners averaged 7.4 starts after their Derby win; take out the geldings, and the number drops to 3.8. More than half were retired at three. For this, I’m supposed to get excited?

So that we can have a Derby winner who is actually something of an accomplished horse, and hold our breaths and hope that we get MAYBE four or five chances to see him race? Or so that we get a Derby winner who got lucky, and who plays out a mediocre career before he, too, heads to the breeding shed? That’s what we have to look forward to? That’s what we all anticipate, months in advance?

No, thank you. Three-year-old colts are about the least interesting demographic in racing, as far as I’m concerned.  Would I like to see a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime? Oh, yeah…I can think of little that would be more exciting, and yeah, I know, to win the Triple Crown, you have to win the Derby.

But I’m not going to start thinking now about who’s the best two-year-old and what the future odds will be and what route they might take to Louisville. I’m not going to feel the frissons of a Derby crush, which will practically by definition have to be ephemeral, because if he is good/lucky enough to win, he’ll be gone before we know it.

And it’s not as if the Derby does a whole lot, long-term, for racing. Yeah, people might pay attention in early May, and yeah, they might place a bet or two, and yeah, maybe they’ll stick around for the Preakness. But they’re not betting in July or September or November; they’re not going to the track; they’re not learning to read past performances.

So I’m not going to be thinking too much about the Derby. I’m going to wonder about what Ruthenia’s going to do over the winter. And I’m going to think about what Paddy O’Prado might do next year. And I’m going to dream about Blind Luck, and maybe even Devil May Care, coming back.  I’m going to think about the horses who’ve got more on their minds than a single Saturday in May, and who might just stick around to race beyond age three.

And if that’s not enough, if that can’t occupy my sporting mind through the winter months…well, that’s what hockey’s for.

For another perspective on the Derby, check out Ed DeRosa’s most recent post at Big Event Blog…particularly if you disagree with me.  🙂

24 thoughts on “Yes. It’s too early.

  1. The Derby is now a bad betting race too! The last two winners were hugely underlaid. Both Super Saver & Mind That Bird deserved to be double their prices IMHO. Even with 20 betting interests, there’s so much chatter on every entrant that no one wants to let a true longshot go.

    The Derby has jumped the shark.

  2. I certainly understand your concern for horses on the derby trail. One of the most important things that horse racing must do to survive is to increase and bolster public support. If you cancel the Kentucky Derby chase you cancel the single race that all of the public knows about. It would be far better to shift the triple crown to 4 year olds than to eliminate it. In conclusion, I think if horse racing is to survive journalists that cover the sport must choose their words carefully. When dealing with a dying and troubled sport there really isn’t time for idle hypothetical discussions.


  3. My first derby was in 2009 and I’ve been hooked ever since. I have continued going to tracks around the country and have learned a lot about the industry. After watching the two year olds run in the Breeders Cup, I think it is only logical to get excited about the next crop of three year olds. Will our two year old favorites run in the Derby? That is yet to be seen, but maybe this will help create more interest in the prep races and help the racing industry grow.

  4. My friend who cashed a WPS ticket on Mine That Bird might disagree, o_crunk 🙂 But in all matters of odds and wagering, I defer to you.

    Mark: I never suggested cancelling the Derby chase. I said that I’m not going to join in the hype over the next six months for a race that doesn’t seem to be particularly significant. I’m not proposing that the Derby change, but perhaps attitudes about it might?

    penguins_fan: First, congrats on the win the other night at the Garden. We were awful. Re: the Derby. I hope that you’re right about it growing the sport, and I’m glad that the Derby had that effect on you. Overall, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  5. The money in horse racing is in breeding and selling, racing is a marketing byproduct. The fan base is dwindling and it will take time before the breeding and selling fail as there are always up and comers with cash to burn. The Derby is the public face of horse racing and easy to get excited about. NFL teams talk of the superbowl in August…it’s never too early, it’s the journey that makes it exciting.

  6. You know, reading this, it seems to me that the reasons you note have more to do with the issues in the industry as a whole rather than the Derby itself. Like Deans Kitten notes, the money is in breeding and selling and as long as that continues the chances we’ll see a Derby winner continue on much past 3 are slim. It’s sad, but I don’t see it as the Derby’s fault.

    For me, I get excited. Not *this* early, mind you, but I do love the buildup. And I love that the Derby is a chance for me to throw a party and introduce my friends to the sport. If I get one of them hooked in any way then all the buildup and importance put on it is worth it to me. So much of racing has to do with the ritual of it all, and the Derby’s the best example of that.

  7. I was lucky enough to be in Churchill when Funny Cide won, so perhaps that hooked me for life.

    I love taking about the Derby in winter the way I love talking Hot Stove Baseball-to me it represents hope.

  8. Teresa,
    Definitely get your point that Derby hysteria can be a bit much; especially 5-6 mos out. But it’s also one of the few things in racing guaranteed to rise above the noise to reach public consciousness. Like an entry-level drug: many newcomers get exposed to racing via the KY Derby each year; a percentage of those will start following the stakes races each weekend; and a percentage of those eventually end up betting the inner at the Big A or $5K claimers on Wed nights at Charles Town.

  9. Thanks, Will.

    DeansKitten and Jen: in addition to the early retirement, equally dismaying is the number of post-Derby wins. It’s tough to get excited about a race whose winner will be lucky to notch another victory.

    Steve: how big do you think that percentage is? Given that attendance and handle overall decline year on year, how many of those Derby watchers do you think are sticking around? You and Jen seem to have a better sense of that than I do.

    Robert talks about hope, Nick talks about Scrooge. Love it. 🙂

  10. I must respectfully disagree the Road to the Triple Crown is one of the best times of the year. Watching the contenders sort themselves out is always exciting, and by the time the Derby looms I usually have an opinion and a future bet or two on the line. While recent races haven’t produced a Triple Crown winner, the hope is always alive. Often horses who place or show steal the limelight later in the year, Curlin went on to become Horse of the Year. A lot of times, the Derby experience is too tough for those immature 3 year olds but it benefits them later in their careers.

  11. Kentucky Derby future books have been open for months, both in Las Vegas and online. So folks are betting on the Derby in September and November. I imagine a few of them even wager on another race or two when they make those plays.

  12. No objections at all to posting links, Nick, particularly ones as relevant as yours. I love to hear what other people have to say about topics I write about. And if I’d read that first, it would have saved me a lot of research time. 🙂

    Pam, thanks for another perspective. I wonder if there are other examples than Curlin of what you say – if he’s an exception, or if the horses who don’t win go on to be more successful than those who do.

    I hope you’re right, Jim.

  13. Teresa’s consistanty with fine journalism also applys to her beliefs as I have seen a lament for Derby Fever from her in previous years. I have similar feelings and I personally find little interesting in 2 YO racing although I have long thought I was squarely in the minority. I love to see 3 YOs come back and campaign, sometimes reinventing themselves along the way. To me, that is much more compelling. Now, there are moments along the Derby Trail when I previously got very interested: The Wood, Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, but even those moments are being ruined for me by trainers who only wish to run the horses two or three times before the Kentucky Derby. I love the older horses and that will always be first love. great writing as usual Teresa.

  14. It’s not the Derby chase, the Derby trail or the Derby talk for six months that’s the problem. As a racing fan, I love the anticipation, the build-up and trying to predict the Derby winner months in advance like I did after Smarty Jones won the Count Fleet. The problem is the industry has made it the end-all and be-all in the past dozen years or so. Perhaps it’s because us Americans have become only a big event nation. But I guess the braintrust figures they’ll take what they can get even if it’s one day a year.

  15. Good article – Derby losing credibility and field size a part of it.

    A few things:

    1. Never really reported, but Monarchos somehow was hurt in Derby Score.

    2. Check your numbers on War Emblem – they are incorrect. He won both the Preakness and the Haskell after the Derby.

    Breeding issues aside, I believe he is one of the most underrated Derby winners of the decade. A summary:

    * Absolutely trounced media darling Repent in the ILL Derby – earned highest Beyer of 3YO
    * Absolutely smoked Derby field
    * Gutty Preakness win putting away all comers
    * Stumbled in gate at Belmont – lost all chance
    * Wins Grade 1 Haskell easily
    * Another bad gate start costs all hope in Pacific Classic
    * BC Classic – Volponi? Other than my $5 to win fun bet on him – a total aberration. War Emblem still finished ahead of Harlan’s Holiday, Came Home, E Dubai, and Perfect Drift.

    The funniest part of 2002 was the backlash against Baffert and the Prince for “buying” the Derby – which any sane person realizes is not true. Plus, the Prince got a lot of heat for being Arab less than a year after 9-11. I still remember the moron New Yorker fan on the TV coverage (I think it was ESPN – you should check it) who was at Belmont to watch War Emblem go for the Triple Crown – he said (paraphrase) ” I hope he doesn’t win – you know, 9-11 and all” – LIKE Prince Salman was evil for buying the horse and responsible for 9-11 and the horse was his accessory. It was the single most ridiculous thing I had ever heard.

    Anyway, my 2 cents on his being underappreciated.

  16. Thanks, Turk. And like you, I have moments of excitement, but it’s tough to get any more excited about the Derby as a significant race than any other race during the year, in terms of its implications for the sport or individual horses.

    August: The frenzy over Uncle Mo is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about. Sure, he’s impressive so far, but there’s a long way to go.

    Martin: Yes, I think that’s it: the Derby has a life of its own, as Ed DeRosa pointed out in his response to this post. And I’m not sure why – it’s not as though it’s some sort of proving ground for excellence.

    Dan: thanks for the correction. That additional win brings the average 1.54. 🙂 And I wasn’t commenting on the merits of any one particular horse, just looking at a pattern over the last decade that doesn’t point to a lot of impressive.

    Take out Funny Cide’s seven wins, and the average of post-Derby wins is one. One!

  17. Your analysis is a good one – my take on War Emblem was simply a contrarian view from what I normally hear about him. Plus, wanted to make sure he got credited for the extra G1 win.

    Imagine if Funny Cide were not a Gelding – he would not have had those starts or wins.

    As long as Breeding rules the landscape, the field size stays at 20, and horses continue to make fewer and fewer starts, and your 1.54 number will not change much.

  18. Dan:
    Media darling Repent? Huh?

    Monarchos was hurt in the Derby but ran in both the Preakness and Belmont? Some injury!

    Was your whole comment just a way of bragging that you had Volponi?

  19. EJXD2 –

    Repent was the “now” horse at the time – many sportswriters saying the ILL Derby was forgone conclusion for him on way to Derby.

    Monarchos injury was not diagnosed until after Belmont – go back and look at John Ward commentary…would be one explanation why fastest Derby runner since Secretariat would fall so flat next 2 out. Did you watch his FL Derby as well – awesome. No way you just “lose” that kick…

    As for Volponi – Bragging about a last minute $5 to win fun play would mean I would have to ignore the hundreds I lost keying Macho Uno and War Emblem on exactas and tris with Medaglia D’Oro, and Came Home that year.

    If I wanted to brag about a score, I would find something better than winning $200, no? Plus – Volponi owed me for the $$ I lost on him at Saratoga that year, and I probably am still not even.

    If you want to accuse my comment of having a bias, War Emblem would be a start.

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