Secretariat

Putting Derby 149 into Perspective

No matter what information we take from the Kentucky Derby and what back stories we find there are always leftovers to contemplate. Here are several of these leftover thoughts that need to be mentioned before we head into the Preakness. With mostly new shooters scheduled to run at Pimlico, I will attempt on Thursday to analyze and handicap the second leg of the Triple Crown, which bears little resemblance to the Run for the Roses. We did have the second, third, and fourth-place finishers in our five-horse (cut down to four with the Skinner scratch) trifecta box. But that amounts to absolutely nothing, so we’ll try again in the Preakness. ~ Steve Haskin

Putting Derby 149 into Perspective

By Steve Haskin

Photo by Michael Clevenger and Erik Mohn/Courier Journal

 

All the back stories have been told and we were left with a warm feeling learning about the Venezuelan connection of Gustavo Delgado and Javier Castellano and the seemingly divine forces that brought them together on the first Saturday in May. But the real story of the 2023 Kentucky Derby was the performance of Mage and the doors he unlocked for future Derby participants.

I have no idea if Mage will win the Preakness, but at least he will be there. I was disappointed to hear that the runner-up Two Phil’s will be passing the second leg of the Triple Crown, but that is what trainer Larry Rivelli feels is best for the horse. From an outsider’s point of view, Two Phil’s went into the Derby off a six-week layoff, was rapidly improving, and in the best shape of his life. When horses get that good, history has shown us that they usually come back and run huge in the Preakness. But you have to respect his decision.

Before getting exclusively to Mage, I realize that you would be hard-pressed to find two more impressive performances in the Derby by the winner and runner-up than Secretariat and Sham, but track records and other stats aside, I have never seen two more extraordinary performances than those turned in by Mage and Two Phil’s, as both did what horses are not supposed to do.

We are all aware of what Two Phil’s accomplished in defeat by pressing a suicidal pace that cooked all those close to it and still nearly winning the race. And he had to press that pace racing between horses the length of the backstretch, which should have gotten him even more keyed up. Four of the five horses who were within two lengths of the pace after a half-mile were beaten an average of 30 lengths. Two Phil’s took the lead nearing the head of the stretch, hung on gamely when challenged by Mage, and was beaten one length. Whatever his plans are, let’s hope he can return to the form he is in now, as he has proven himself to be a remarkable horse. Although another chance to win a classic beckons on Saturday he will pass. But he sure left his mark on the Derby.

And now for Mage the Rage. Yes, he is now all the Rage. There have been Kentucky Derby winners who have won more impressively, in faster time, by bigger margins, and coming from farther back. But no one, not even eventual Triple Crown winner Justify, has ever done what he did in the manner in which he did it. Just as a reminder, no Derby winner before Justify had ever overcome the obstacles of having only three lifetime starts and not racing as a juvenile.

Not to diminish what Justify did in his historic Derby score, but he did it coming off three easy on-the-pace romps averaging 6 1/2 lengths a victory and then winning the Derby pressing a 49-1 shot over a speed-favoring sloppy track. Ironically, the runner-up in that Derby, beaten 2 1/2 lengths, was Good Magic, the sire of Mage. To add even more irony, you had Good Magic siring a Kentucky Derby winner in his first crop, with Justify, the horse who beat him in the Derby, siring the horse who finished 16th.

One can say Justify was a brilliant horse who was simply asked to be brilliant again in the Derby over a track geared toward brilliance. Mage was a horse who had no distinct running style, showing speed in his first start, stalking the pace in his second start, and coming from 12th and last in his third start, who was asked to run like a seasoned older horse and make his way through 15 horses going 1 1/4 miles with only three starts and 24 1/2 furlongs under him. He then had to catch and outrun Two Phil’s, a horse in the form of his life who had eight starts and 60 furlongs under him. Excluding Authentic’s Derby, which was run in September, Mage, despite his inexperience, still ran the fourth fastest Derby in the last 20 years. The three horses who ran faster won on or near the lead.

We still have no idea how good Mage is and how high his ceiling is. The explosive early move he made on the turn in the Florida Derby, blowing right by 2-year-old champion Forte, was something you just don’t see from a horse with only two career starts, especially in a Grade 1 race. To further demonstrate how different Mage is from other horses and how he is trained, a week before the Derby with many of the main contenders working a solid four furlongs in :48 or a fast five furlongs in :59, Mage was plodding along six furlongs in a sluggish 1:16 4/5. That likely turned a lot of people off, but the thinking by Venezuelan-born Gustavo Delgado was, if you know your horse is fast it is more important to focus on longer, stamina-building works and have him close fast and gallop out strong, which Mage did in that work.

It was Mage’s natural speed and quickness that enabled him to move out into the clear rounding the far turn by outrunning Mandarin Hero and King Russell on his outside and clearing a path for himself. That allowed him to get first jump on Angel in Empire, who was inside him, and separating himself from the favorite, who pulled out behind him but was never able to make up the ground. And this was after Mage had run his third quarter in a sprightly :23 2/5. Despite his success in the Derby, Mage might be better off using that natural speed early in the race at Pimlico, as the Preakness is not as kind to deep closers as it is in the Derby where the pace can go wild. He can’t expect to get fractions like that again.

When I mentioned earlier that Mage unlocked doors with his Derby victory I was referring to the idea that Justify’s win, in which he knocked off two big historic streaks, was considered by many as an aberration and that winning the Derby with only three career starts and no starts at 2 was still a near-impossible task. But now that Mage has duplicated that feat five years later and did it in a most unconventional manner, you can be sure those obstacles will not deter anyone and we will see more and more inexperienced horses running in the Derby. The only problem is that none likely will be able to do what Mage did leading up to and during the race.

Just touching on Forte, that was one bad week for the Derby favorite. Before he even got to Churchill Downs he lost a good deal of his supporters following the Florida Derby, in which bore no resemblance to last year’s champ until the final 100 yards. Then there were his mundane speed figures and an uninspiring pre-Derby work. Then during Derby week he takes a bad step and stumbles slightly during a gallop, which sends up more warning flares. Then he is found to have suffered foot bruise and gets fitted with a three-quarter shoe. Then he is scratched by state vets the morning of the Derby and has the horse he beat twice win the race. He then is is put on the vets list and not allowed to run in the Preakness. Soon after, it is reported that he had a positive drug test in the Hopeful Stakes eight months earlier and is disqualified from the race. So he loses one race, is not allowed to run in the race he’s been pointing for his entire career, and can not even run in a future race that would give him a chance at vindication.

Finally, even with all the late scratches in the Derby and the deaths of seven horses at Churchill Downs, we at least had a clean, exciting Derby, two extraordinary performances, and perhaps the birth of a star. The tragedies of Derby week will linger for a long time. Hopefully so will the victory of Mage.

The Sun is Still Rising

Don’t think for a second this was a bad Kentucky Derby for the Japanese. Starting with their demolition of the UAE Derby, finishing first, second, and third and Derma Sotogake’s runaway victory, to the gutsy nose defeat of Mandarin Hero in the Santa Anita Derby, the respect for the Japanese horses and horsemen continues to grow. Very often, foreign invaders who step off the plane and run huge in the States fail to remain here and duplicate that effort in their second try. And considering the bad start and early move in traffic by Derma Sotogake, his sixth-place finish in the Derby was quite respectable and he likely would have been closer with a better trip.

I remember the days of the Washington D.C. International when the Japanese sent horses with sterling credentials but were totally dismissed, with names in their pedigrees no one ever heard of. In 1969, Takeshiba-O was riding an eight-race winning streak, carrying as much as 143 pounds. In 1967, Speed Symboli went into the race having won four straight races. Even as late as 1976 their entry Fujino Pahshia, despite three wins in a row, two of them under 132 pounds, was so unknown the company line in his DRF past performances read, “Further information not available.” In short, the Japanese horses were never taken seriously and were scoffed at, as was racing in Japan.

Now, all these years later, all I can think of in my warped mind was an episode of The Twilight Zone about a disfigured woman who was undergoing one final surgery to make her look normal. At the end when her bandages are removed the doctors and nurses cringe in disgust, saying, “Oh no, it didn’t work.” Then you see her face and she is beautiful. The camera shifts to the doctors and nurses for the first time and they are all hideous looking.

What does that have to do with anything? Well, perhaps it is the Japanese horses and racing, once considered the ugly ducklings of racing, that are the beautiful ones and we are the ones who are not as beautiful as we think. They are the ones who are light years ahead of us in technology, structure, transparency, and safety, as well as how to train their horses and keep them happy by having them out of their stalls for hours at a time and getting them fit and sharp with less emphasis on speed. Also, most of their equine heroes are older horses, as ours once were before the big breeding farms reeled in the 3-year-olds with humongous dollar signs as bait. And give the Japanese credit for building the nucleus of a powerful breeding industry with the blood of American horses, just as we built ours with the blood of European horses. As a result they are winning a number of the biggest races in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, the U.S, and Australia, and only bad luck has prevented them from winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France. We can either stand by and just admire the Japanese and wait for another Derma Sotogake to come along with better luck and win the Kentucky Derby or follow them into the future.

The Thoroughbred Then and Now

Let’s actually go back a few years to the late sixties and early seventies to put history in proper perspective and let’s send today’s younger generation of racing fans through a time portal and see how they would react to the Derby trail and other examples of a horse’s resilience back then.

In 1968, we saw Damascus run in three 1 1/4-mile stakes in the span of 16 days, carrying 130 pounds or more in each one, concluding with a victory over Dr. Fager in the Brooklyn Handicap, in which he set a track record of 1:59 1/5 that still stands 55 years later.

In 2023, we witnessed the first three finishers of the Kentucky Derby go into the race off layoffs of five weeks, six weeks, and five weeks, which is pretty much normal. So how would today’s younger generation feel about the first three finishers of the 1969 Derby, Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters, and Dike, in order going into the race off seven days, nine days, and 14 days? Imagine the uproar if the top horses did that now. In another example of the changing times, Top Knight, the 2-year-old champion of 1968 and early Derby favorite, was virtually unbeatable in Florida, winning the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby by open lengths over Arts and Letters. But when his trainer Ray Metcalf said he would go straight to the Kentucky Derby off a five-week layoff, the warning flags went up that something had to be wrong with the colt. Horses who ran five weeks out generally had another race before the Derby. As a result, Top Knight did not go off as the favorite in the Derby.

Majestic Prince, who did go off as favorite, had romped by eight in the Santa Anita Derby the same day as the Florida Derby, but he came east and won the seven-furlong Stepping Stone purse in a blistering 1:21 3/5 a fifth of a second off the track record, seven days before the Derby. Arts and Letters, following a victory in the Everglades and second-place finishes in the Flamingo, Fountain of Youth, and Florida Derby, headed to Keeneland where he won the Blue Grass Stakes by 15 lengths in 1:47 4/5, two-fifths off Round Table’s track record, nine days before the Derby. Dike, after failing in Florida, came to New York and unleashed two furious stretch runs to narrowly win the Gotham and Wood Memorial before running in the Derby 14 days later.

In the Derby, only four horses dared to challenge the big four. Majestic Prince outdueled Arts and Letters the length of the stretch to win by a neck with the late-running Dike finishing a half-length back in third. As for Top Knight, the warning flags regarding his five-week layoff were real, as the champ finished out of the money in the Derby and Preakness before disappearing into obscurity, finishing out his career at tiny Narragansett Park and Lincoln Downs in Rhode Island.

And what about after the Derby? Arts and Letters was beaten in another photo by Majestic Prince in the Preakness. Despite his arduous Derby trail campaign and two gut-wrenching defeats in the Derby and Preakness, he actually ran two weeks later against older horses in the Met Mile and won easily in a blistering 1:34 flat. A week later he crushed Majestic Prince in the Belmont Stakes before going on to a Hall of Fame career, winning the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Grey Lag Handicap. A bowed tendon forced his retirement at 4. Dike went on at 3 to finish second and third in the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps against the best older horses in the country.

In 1971, little Jim French  entered the grueling Triple Crown series having competed in 10 stakes at five different racetracks in a little over four months, traveling from New York to Florida, back to New York, back to Florida, to California, back to New York, and then to Kentucky. Although most horses would have been totally wiped out, Jim French went on to finish a fast-closing second to Canonero II in the Kentucky Derby, third in Canonero’s track record-breaking Preakness, and a fast-closing second in the Belmont Stakes, in which he made up more than five lengths in the final furlong to be beaten three-quarters of a length.

Instead of being given a well-earned vacation following arguably the most ambitious Triple Crown campaign ever, Jim French amazingly was back in the starting gate two weeks after the Belmont, finishing a fast-closing fourth in the one-mile Pontiac Grand Prix (formerly the Arlington Classic) at Arlington Park. Following his first three-week “vacation” since the previous November, he shipped to California, where he finished second in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby, giving the winner, Bold Reason, 13 pounds. One week later, he was back in New York, winning the 1 1/4-mile Dwyer Handicap, conceding 12-15 pounds to the rest of the field. In less than seven months, Jim French had run in 16 stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/2 miles, never finishing worse than fourth (except for his disqualification in the Everglades Stakes).

In 1973, Secretariat, following his record-breaking Triple Crown, in which he broke the track record in all three races, and an illness coming out of the Whitney that forced him to miss the Travers, set a world record in the Marlboro Cup at 1 1/8 miles, finished second in the second-fastest mile and a half ever run at Belmont in the Woodward Stakes in the slop, finishing 11 lengths ahead of future Hall of Famer Cougar II in third, and broke a turf course record in the Man o’War Stakes at 1 1/2 miles – all in the span of 23 days.

I only mention all these examples as a reminder of what the Thoroughbred is capable of, or at least was capable of before the invasion of the aforementioned dollar signs, and how sparingly he is asked to race today. Yes, times have changed. We have horses winning the Derby with only three lifetime starts, top-horses being retired at 3, and 4-year-old super horses with only six lifetime starts. We will never go back to the old days and perhaps we shouldn’t, as concern for the horse’s welfare has greatly increased, especially when it comes to aftercare. Now, racing fans have the privilege, enjoyment and satisfaction of adopting retired Thoroughbreds and giving them a second life.

We old timers who were used to seeing racehorses race just have to learn to adapt to the new racing and set new standards of greatness. But as far as the all-time greats who reside in racing’s pantheon, those gates appear to be permanently closed except to a handful of recent fillies such as Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, and Beholder who actually earned their entrance by racing and excelling over a period of time. Their dollar signs as broodmares are not nearly as big as those of prospective stallions. As a result, those fillies became like good friends we got to know, just as the great colts did years ago.

Changing the Triple Crown

Once again people are calling for a change to the Triple Crown, with some of the experts wanting it run the first Saturday in May, first Saturday in June, and first Saturday in July. I can’t state emphatically that will work or not work, but I do have questions.

Are we overestimating the attention span of the public? We know they can keep their interest in the Triple Crown for five weeks, but will they keep it for two months? Who knows how many recognizable names from the Derby will be in the Belmont two months later?

Will Derby winners be even more susceptible to late developing horses in early July when they are no longer in the same form they were for the Derby? There must be a reason why only three Kentucky Derby winners have won the Travers in the past 80 years.

Do conservative trainers today feel their horses can’t handle coming back in two weeks and racing three times in five weeks or are they assuming they can’t because of their conservative nature or doubt their own ability to bring a horse back in two weeks? When  horses get good they usually remain in peak form for a short period of time. Do you believe a horse can keep his peak form over a two-month period or stay healthy for that long? The truth is since Carry Back in 1961, 40 percent of the Kentucky Derby winners have come back in two weeks to win the Preakness. Add the number of horses who won the first and third and second and third legs of the Triple Crown and the number of horses who win two legs of the Triple Crown swells to 60 percent. Do we believe more than 40 percent of Kentucky Derby winners will win the Preakness a month later and still be around a month after that?

I am just throwing these statistics out there and letting you come up with your own conclusions before calling for such a drastic change. If it somehow improves the Triple Crown then that’s fine. But we better be darn sure before we do it.

So here we are in 2023 with a budding star in Mage who we hardly know. We have no idea what he will accomplish or for how long we will have him. Will he become just another of our transient heroes? For now, whatever greatness there may be in the colt must resonate only in our imagination.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to Secretariat.com since 2020.

 


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