DEVELOPING THE DERBY HORSE MOSTLY ABOUT THE HORSE
With the end of the year 2015 in sight, we all are asking ourselves one very important question. Who is going to win the 2016 Kentucky Derby!
This is the time of year when the road to the first Saturday in May begins to get a little more traffic. Horsemen far and wide are dreaming of immortality the run for the roses can offer. There are “big” races throughout the entire year and there are races that have larger purses, but let’s face it, the Kentucky Derby is the biggest race on the planet. That is why the chase begins every year the day after that famous mile and a quarter is run.
Thousands of juvenile horses each year toe the track with hopes of glory the following May. Two-year olds everywhere begin the journey, usually in the summer, and build towards greatness. There are different training theories as to how to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby, but most agree in a common denominator.
“It’s really more up to the horse than anything,” says Art Sherman, trainer of 2014 Derby winner California Chrome. “You have got to give them a chance to grow up. I call it allowing them to get their legs under them. They need to mature physically and become more focused mentally.”
So, how does a trainer get the horse from youthful energy to Derby winning machine? After 141 years, there has to be a formula for grooming a winner.
“As much as I would like to say it is something human that makes it happen, it is not,” observes Doug O’Neill who conditioned 2012 champion I’ll Have Another. “At the end of the day, the horse’s mental makeup is probably the biggest determining factor. As a trainer, you just hope to be lucky enough to have a horse that thrives on competition and loves to work and race.”
O’Neill hopes to be the lucky one again in 2016 as he has top-rated juvenile Nyquist in his barn. So far, there has been a lot to like about this undefeated son of Uncle Mo. With five wins in as many starts at three different tracks, Nyquist has shown his handler those early signs he likes, especially during his latest win which came in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland on October 31.
“Right now I really like his mental makeup,” says the winner of over 2,000 races. “He handled the ship to Keeneland and the whole Breeders’ Cup experience like a pro and that is really encouraging. Of course his high cruising speed is pretty nice too.”
You can’t make chicken salad without chicken, but let’s not underscore the importance the trainer plays. Deciding when and where to run and what buttons to push is always key with the twin spires in mind. Winning along the way may not always be as important as building the product, as long as you win enough to make the race. Because everybody wants a piece of that Derby pie, the starters are determined by a qualifying points system. Different prep races are worth different points with the ones closest to the first Saturday in May providing the most. With the race limited to 20 spots in the starting gate, points can play a factor for some.
The most recent Derby champion and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah had a path carefully plotted by four-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. The hall of famer is at the drawing board now with a Pennsylvania-bred son of Eskendereya. Mor Spirit most recently ran second in the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, but Baffert knew at this point it was more important to run his horse for experience than to win. Now with 1 win and two second place finishes in 3 lifetime starts, Mor Spirit is on the road to Louisville. But for Baffert, the points do not necessarily concern him as he maps out his path to Louisville.
“The Derby points are a non-factor for me,” says Baffert. “If my horse is good enough, he will get the points.”
Each trainer may have a different agenda for their horse when it comes to preparing for that run at immortality, but when the horse hockey hits the track it still boils down to one very important thing. Like two-time Kentucky Derby winner Carl Nafzger (1990 Unbridled, 2007 Street Sense) says, “you don’t take the horse to the Derby, he takes you.”