Commentary

Derby rule breakers

Updated: February 18, 2009, 4:11 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Kentucky Derby winners have never really fit a specific mold, although some horseplayers have used so-called "Derby rules" to help make sense of the handicapping process. As a stats junkie who has made a good chunk of my professional living digging up such numbers and trends for the major television networks, I'm here to announce a turning of the page.

Of course, some will argue that "Derby rules" always were in more dispute than repute. Because the historical trends concerning preparation and development did not fit into their handicapping mindset, these skeptics laughed at the notion that somehow three Derby prep races were more beneficial than two, and having three, four, five or six weeks between starts meant little.

But those brush-them-off skeptics have been handicapping hypocrites. Statistical handicapping remains a "must" for anyone seriously picking apart races.

Nearly every conceivable handicapping angle employs some semblance of historical analysis that has nothing to do with the subject horse you're evaluating today, whether you're talking trainer stats, pedigree analysis, par times or sheets patterns. Just because a barn wins 20 percent first-time blinkers has nothing to do with this particular horse's ability to adapt to the equipment; a turf-loving mother does not necessarily produce a grass-mowing daughter; and because a bounce often occurs after a horse fires a big number does not mean this particular animal can't still be flourishing and yet to reach his peak.

No doubt, many of these statistical Derby trends that earned themselves some credibility in the 1980s and '90s have been drastically shot out of the water in recent years. Times change, and handicappers need to be able to mold with them. But why have time-honored Derby trends (I never liked the word "rules") gone the way of the dinosaur? A handful of key variables have been at play in recent years that have completely changed the landscape of the Triple Crown trail -- both in real and perceived terms.

Gulfstream's reconfiguration

When the old Gulfstream Park was demolished and rebuilt in 2005, the outcries had more to do with the lack of grandstand seats and the loss of an old friend. But the real impact in the renovation was the change from a one-mile dirt oval to a 1 1/8-mile configuration. In doing so, Gulfstream no longer was able to card 1 1/16-mile races because of a now-dangerously short run into the first turn.

That 1 1/16-mile distance rates as the preferred trip to stretch out a runner around two turns in maiden, allowance or stakes company -- ask just about any trainer. It's absolutely no coincidence that the rapid rise of the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Tampa Bay Derby across the state coincides with Gulfstream's loss of 1 1/16-mile races. Both of those events now offer an attractive middle-distance alternative. Whereas Tampa winter stakes contenders were once Derby trail toss-outs, they're now championship players like Street Sense and War Pass.

Because the Gulfstream racing office only had limited options of a one-turn mile or a two-turn marathon at 1 1/8 miles, the stakes schedule started to go in flux. Trainers were worried about tinkering with their horses from one turn to two, and especially leery of bringing a horse back off a long layoff in a nine-furlong route like the Holy Bull or Fountain of Youth as a prep for the Florida Derby.

The Florida Derby itself was moved from its traditional second or third week in March to the first week of April in 2005, altering what had become a traditional Florida-to-New York (Wood) or -Kentucky (Blue Grass/Lexington) path. Suddenly there was a key Kentucky Derby prep on the slate five weeks out from the first Saturday in May, tempting connections to train their contenders up to the big dance instead of forcing another prep race. The Florida Derby timing also has forced some horsemen with logical horses for the race to look elsewhere, as the five-week spread is too close for another prep in between, and too far out for a particular contender who needs more work.

It has taken horsemen and handicappers a few years to adjust to a new era in the 3-year-old schedule. You simply can't progress with an allowance, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby and Wood Memorial schedule as in past years. How you negotiate the waters in Florida is a far different ballgame than it was pre-2005. But it has turned out to be a very successful change for those who have managed it, a la Barbaro and Big Brown.

All-weather forecast

Turfway Park unveiled its Polytrack course on the Triple Crown trail for the first time in spring 2006, and instant weirdness forever changed how all-weather Derby preps would be perceived. When longest-priced With A City rocked the tote board at a $99.60 mutuel, chaos was invited to the party. One year later, Keeneland followed suit with its Polytrack, and champion Street Sense was upset by 8-1 shot Dominican in one of the slowest-paced Grade I contests of all time. And despite last year's formful Santa Anita Derby win by Colonel John on the Cushion Track (since replaced with Pro-Ride), the early all-weather impressions from Kentucky will take years for horsemen and fans to forget.

The all-weather tracks at Turfway and Keeneland do not play like a dirt track, and are specifically opposite of their speed-favoring predecessors. While quite fair, they put a premium on endurance and trip, and there are no freebies. Connections of top 3-year-olds know this, and the trickle-down effect is that you simply don't see the front-end heist attempts in these races anymore.

Top-quality speedballs with only one way of running now are aimed away from the G2 Lane's End and G1 Blue Grass. That leads to more front-end speed in races like the G1 Wood Memorial, G2 Arkansas Derby and G2 Illinois Derby on the traditional dirt, thus drastically changing the complexion of races even outside the all-weather venues. Fleet early runners like Gayego, Sweetnorthernsaint, Cowtown Cat and War Pass have elected to tackle the races at Oaklawn, Aqueduct and Hawthorne. The G2 Lexington at Keeneland now has become a haven for speed types like Samba Rooster, who in past years might have tried to heist the Blue Grass, but instead are sent the shorter 1 1/16-mile trip.

The all-weather surface era has drastically changed the way some barns approach the Triple Crown trail. Bob Baffert was adamant about getting out on the road last year from Southern California, but seems more at home with the surface this year. Nick Zito has all but given up trying to win races on Polytrack. Steve Asmussen loves to train over it and race elsewhere. Doug O'Neill thinks his all-weather horses need a dirt prep to be ready for Louisville and is not afraid to hit the road.

With every change of plans, every zig from the traditional zag, the historical face of how Derby contenders are prepped has evolved.

Making the money grade

The now-famous lone criteria for making the Kentucky Derby field, a horse's ranking in terms of graded stakes earnings, was first implemented in 1988. But the rule remained dormant until 1999 because the Derby fields did not oversubscribe with entries for more than a decade. The "need" to sip mint juleps and wear big hats was more subdued then, as five Derbies during that span had 15 or fewer starters in the gate.

From 1999-2003, a few minor exclusions from the Derby field took place due to the graded-earnings clause, most notably Unshaded in 2000 and Sunday Break in 2002. But the way the graded earnings would be perceived took a drastic public-relations turn in 2004 when Santa Anita Derby runner-up Rock Hard Ten and Wood Memorial third-place finisher Eddington both were excluded from the 20-horse field. The rising superstars would run second and third behind Smarty Jones in the Preakness, but their real impact was that they became the poster children for owners and trainers who now knew to take no chances on the earnings ladder.

With today's big-event mentality and society of entitlement, it's almost ensured that rich people everywhere will stuff the Derby entry box beyond its limits for years to come. The 20-horse Derby field and the need to make the graded-earnings threshold have permeated the Triple Crown trail and are now part of the decision-making process.

It's commonplace to hear trainers say they skipped this $150,000 Grade II in favor of this $250,000 Grade III, strictly because of their potential place on the final earnings list. Races often are chosen less now for distance and location than they are for graded-purse money. A track like Sunland Park can offer $600,000 for its Derby, but no one of repute will show up because there's no graded money involved. In the 1990s, regional races like the Remington Park Derby offered half that money, but were able to lure big-time horses like Blumin Affair. That scenario would be nearly impossible today without graded status.

So what's new?

The chief reasons we can roll out the "Derby rules" come down to a decided shift in both training methods and the spring schedule. Trainers apparently no longer can afford to give their horses a throwaway race in their seasonal returns, much less a full winter break. Owners have a serious "get there" mentality not built on having a horse peak on Derby Day, but rather earning enough graded dough now to get a chance to wear a big hat.

And what do we make of the steroids vs. non-steroids era?

Remember, every trainer quoted in the past year has talked ad nauseam about how steroids are necessary to keep their horses eating and exercising. If this is true, forget about any performance-enhancing blabber, will trainers be able lean hard enough on their horses for five and six weeks in between starts and produce the same results as recent years? Can a non-steroid a.m. workload be enough to supplement only one or two prep races before a 10-furlong test? We might find out that the less-is-more racing approach leaves today's Derby-trail contenders completely unprepared for the rigors that lie ahead in Louisville.

With only a few years under our belts to assess the impact of the new Florida campaign, the nation's all-weather surface implications and the new world order of the graded-stakes-earnings frenzy, the safest thing for handicappers to do this spring is put historical rules on hold until much more data can be collected.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is part owner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can e-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayer.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.