Juvenile a road to nowhere?

The upside is obvious: it's a prestigious $1.5 million race and victory could mean an Eclipse Award. The downside? More and more, the Juvenile looks like a race on the road to nowhere.

Updated: October 11, 2004, 10:25 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

The moment the fields crossed the wire for the Lane's End Futurity at Keeneland and the Champagne at Belmont, a handful of trainers started mulling their options. Should they go to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile or stay home? The upside is obvious: it's a prestigious $1.5 million race and victory could mean an Eclipse Award. The downside? More and more, the Juvenile looks like a race on the road to nowhere.

When the Breeders' Cup debuted in 1984 there was never any doubt it was the place to be for any quality 2-year-old. There was the rich purse, the probable championship and victory meant the winner would likely establish himself as the horse to beat some six months later in the Kentucky Derby. That reputation didn't suffer a bit when the inaugural Juvenile winner Chief's Crown finished third in the 1985 Derby and was beaten by Spend a Buck, who was third in the Juvenile. Tank's Prospect, second in the 1984 Juvenile, went on to win the Preakness.

It's been all down hill since. The most telling statistic is that no Juvenile winner has won the Kentucky Derby. A lot don't even make it. Those who do are rarely competitive. Since 1995, when 1994 Juvenile winner Timber Country finished third in the Derby, six Juvenile winners have made it to the gate for the first Saturday in May. They have finished fifth, eighth, tenth, thirteenth, eighth and sixth.

In time, trainers grew understandably wary of running in the Juvenile, but most did so anyway. Last year that started to change. Trainer Nick Zito, with three quality 2-year-olds in his barn, passed the race, though he says he would have run Eurosilver had the colt not bucked his shins. Zito covets the Kentucky Derby and simply didn't feel chasing after the Juvenile was the best way to prepare a horse for the first Saturday in May. Though he didn't win the Derby, Zito was largely proven right. Birdstone has won the Belmont and the Travers and The Cliff's Edge won the Blue Grass and finished second in the Jim Dandy and Travers.

"They're 0-for-20 now," Zito. "There has to be a reason for that. The best way I can explain it is it's like a mini-Kentucky Derby. It's a big test right away for a young horse. Some day someone will win both races, but it's obviously a very hard thing to do. You can't say there's no truth to that."

Obviously, there's no way to tell what would have happened to Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge had they run in the Juvenile. But for those who did compete, the days since have been pretty bleak. The 12 horses who competed are a combined 4-for-44 this year. Only one, 11th-place finisher Mambo Train, has won a stakes race and it was nothing to get excited about. He won the Turf Paradise Derby. The winner, Action This Day, is 0-for-4 this year and hasn't been from or heard from since finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby. Zito's best 2-year-old this year may be Sun King, who will be among the favorites in the Champagne. Ironically, Zito said he might point him toward the Juvenile, based on his belief he will be a superior two-turn horse and is lightly raced.

But others will be missing. Declan's Moon, who may be the best 2-year-old in the country, will pass the Juvenile. He upset Roman Ruler in the Del Mar Futurity, earning a 107 Beyer figure in the process, the best number given to any 2-year-old this year. Trainer Ron Ellis had originally planned on running in the Juvenile, but felt he needed to give his horse a break after he ran such a tough race at Del Mar. He missed the next logical step, the Norfolk, and didn't want to test his horse in the Juvenile without a two-turn prep. He will point instead for the Hollywood Futurity, which Ellis sees as a more prudent approach.

"I'm not one of those Juvenile bashers and I would have pointed for it under other circumstances," he said. "Then again, it sure doesn't have a great track record. That's one of the reasons we decided on the Hollywood Futurity, which has a good history of horses going on to be successful in the classics. Maybe the Juvenile is too much too early for a horse."

No doubt there will be plenty of good horses in this year's Juvenile field. The likely favorite will be Roman Ruler, who, though beaten by Declan's Moon in the Del Mar Futurity, has proven to be a quality horse who has the potential to improve. Trained by Bob Baffert, he has the goods to win the Kentucky Derby.

As Zito said, the jinx has to end some time. For the sake of the Juvenile, it can't happen soon enough. The 2003 rendition may have been the weakest Breeders' Cup race ever assembled and it will only get worse as more and more trainers grow convinced they can't win the Kentucky Derby if they run in the Breeders' Cup. The Juvenile was intended to be most coveted goal of the season for any 2-year-old. It may turn out to be the race everyone wants to avoid.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com