Derby win just might be horse's last
After the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, you might want to hold off tearing up your tickets or counting your money for just a second. Take a moment and watch the winner as he gallops back to the winner's circle.
It just might be the last time you see him there.
For all the money spent in breeding sheds and auction rings as owners try to find their Derby horse, for all the strategy and hard work trainers put in trying to develop a talented young horse to peak in the late spring of its 3-year-old season, for all the media coverage and hype of the Derby trail, the race is supposed to be a coronation. The Derby winner is supposed to be the next super horse, the one to boost a sport in desperate need of star power.
More often, however, the coronation is really a going-away party. Instead of marking the coming of a champion, a Kentucky Derby win often marks the beginning of the end for the winner. In recent years, winner after winner has been unable to duplicate the peak performance shown on the first Saturday of May.
When 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom beat five horses in a $60,000 allowance race on the Gulfstream Park turf course in February, he became the first Kentucky Derby winner to win a subsequent race since Big Brown ended his career with a victory in the Monmouth Stakes in September 2008. Moreover, Animal Kingdom was the first Derby champion to win a race in his 4-year-old season since Giacomo won the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar in 2006.
Three of the past six Derby winners — Super Saver (2010), Mine That Bird (2009) and Barbaro (2006) — never won again. Only two of the past eight winners — Big Brown (2008) and Street Sense (2007) — won more than once after the big score at Churchill Downs.
There are a number of factors in play:
• The fluke factor: Long shots win more often. Five bombs at 20-1 or greater have won in the past 13 years. With the field usually at the limit of 20, trips and racing luck become a greater factor. Horses enter the Derby these days having been lightly raced, rather than having a long record of established form. The influx of artificial surfaces such as Polytrack and Tapeta make handicapping the Derby more of a guessing game than ever. When Mine That Bird leaves everyone scratching their heads at 50-1, is it any great surprise he never duplicated that Derby effort?
• The breeding factor: This one's not new, but it's as true as ever. The instant a horse wins the Derby, his — assuming it's a colt — breeding value skyrockets. At that moment, every subsequent race becomes riskier. The prestige and possible purses must be weighed against the possibility of injury and wiping out two decades of breeding revenue. That's why Animal Kingdom's win as a 4-year-old is the exception, not the rule.
• The distance factor: The Derby is 1-1/4 miles, which is a great challenge for still-developing horses going that far for the first time. Truth is, many of them never will run that far again. The so-called classic distance is now an aberration in US racing. That means the winner might never again see the conditions that allowed him to turn in that peak performance.
• The drugs factor: US horses race doped up. Legal medications, and perhaps illegal ones, have allowed horses to run when their bodies tell them to rest. Some argue the cumulative effort over generations has weakened the breed. Surely, post-Derby injuries have shortened some champions' careers. That's not to say the tragic, traumatic injury of Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness is a result of the watering-down of thoroughbreds. But Animal Kingdom, Super Saver and Big Brown certainly have had soundness issues.
Long gone are the days when we saw great showdowns between Derby winners, such as Alysheba vs. Ferdinand in the 1980s or Affirmed vs. Seattle Slew a decade earlier. We're fortunate every time a Derby winner steps back on the track at all.