Kentucky Derby horses taking road less traveled

Forget about robins singing and flowers blooming. The surest sign that the racing world is sharpening its focus on Churchill Downs may have come with this edition of Point Spread Weekly. The chart comparing Kentucky Derby futures was finally reduced to two columns and got bigger print.

The pithiest among us might say it could be reduced to two horses — Essential Quality and Concert Tour. With their combined record of 8-for-8, it would be an easy case to make. It would also be too breezy and blissfully ignorant of all the unconventional ways of getting to the Derby.

For anyone not paying attention — and even for those who are — trainer John Sadler has come through the back door with Rock Your World, sneaking up on the rest of the competition and pouncing when it was least expected. Sneaking up meant two wintertime races on the Santa Anita turf. Pouncing meant a 4 ¼-length victory in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby last Saturday. Just the way Sadler planned it.

“You’re hoping, but it’s one of those things,” Sadler said. “You don’t know until you do it. We’re thrilled the way things worked out.”

It was another sign of the changing times on the Derby trail. No longer is it de rigueur to have two or three races as a 2-year-old and then at least three more at age 3, all on dirt. Forget last year, and check out how the past few Kentucky Derby winners got to Louisville.

Country House captured the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
Country House captured the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

2019, Country House

The traditional way by volume, but maybe not by outcome. Race in three maiden races as a 2-year-old. Then lose the Grade 2 Risen Star, the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Next, make sure the apparent winner at Churchill Downs commits a disqualifying foul. See? The traditional way.


2018, Justify

Don’t race at all at age 2, make a winning debut 76 days before the Kentucky Derby, finish first in a specially written allowance 55 days before and win the Santa Anita Derby four weeks out. Then win the Triple Crown and never race again. Nothing to it.

2017, Always Dreaming

Race twice at 2, but don’t break the maiden until age 3. Win an allowance race before dropping in for a stakes debut in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Win that, and then win at Louisville. Who needs points preps before that first time at 1 ¹/₄ miles against the big boys?

2016, Nyquist

Get sold three times, race five times in less than five months and win them all at age 2. Who does that anymore? And what Derby candidate makes his 3-year-old debut by winning a Grade 2 sprint outside the points system? It worked when Nyquist won the San Vicente. And the Florida Derby. And the Kentucky Derby.


2015, American Pharoah

Finish fifth on debut before using a Grade 1 race on synthetic dirt as a maiden breaker. Get hurt after a victorious first time on dirt in another Grade 1 race before shipping to a victorious comeback on a sloppy track. Win on that same track when it dries out on the way to becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

This year, the diversity is not limited to Rock Your World. Essential Quality’s path might have looked “normal” if not for two snowouts at Oaklawn that postponed his 3-year-old debut for 12 days. Concert Tour went the Justify route by skipping his 2-year-old season before he followed the Nyquist example in the San Vicente. After losing in two points preps, Known Agenda had his blinkers removed, squeezed in an allowance victory, then won the Florida Derby.

The message is clear. One size no longer fits all Derby candidates. Traditional handicappers slow to realize that would have been burned pretty much every year lately, thinking that the unusual way to Louisville was the wrong way. Take heed, for 2021 may offer more of the same. Or the not-so-same.