THE KENTUCKY DERBY is an ending. It is the finish of a race that begins long before the two minutes it takes to run 1¼ miles around the loamy oval of Churchill Downs. It starts more than three years earlier when stallions are bred to mares in an annual high-stakes experiment in informed genetic guesswork; and continues a year after that when the yearlings are sold at auction to dreamers, tycoons and sharks; and a year—or more—later when they first race, in pursuit of a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. To complete the Run for the Roses is a victory of its own.
But the Derby is also a beginning. On Saturday evening 20 horses will contest the most important race in the U.S. and one of the most significant in the world. Some of them are overmatched; their owners are here for the party. Others, with trainers genuinely hopeful, will be exposed by the distance, the competition or the moment. (Yes, the moment; more than one horse has been unnerved by the presence of 160,000 souls, some of them not inebriated.) But one horse will win. And with that victory, a new race starts. A race in pursuit of a success that endures beyond Kentucky.
Saturday's 144th renewal of the Derby is especially intriguing because it includes at least three horses who have the look of greatness and at least four others who have won important races. "I haven't seen a Derby like this since probably 1997," says Bob Baffert, who has trained four Derby champions, including 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. The Derby is always a spectacle, but it is not always so laden with precocity. This is a good year.
But a strange year, as well, in which obvious class is swimming upstream against some enduring trends. The top three are Justify, Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn. All have impeccable human support (owner-trainer-jockey), and all have terrific records. Justify, the early front-runner, is the unbeaten winner of the April 7 Santa Anita Derby, but he has run only three races and did not race at all in 2017. Magnum Moon is the unbeaten winner of the April 14 Arkansas Derby, but he has run only four races and also did not race as a 2-year-old. (The Derby is for 3-year-olds; thoroughbreds cannot race on any track until they are two, but some develop more slowly and are unprepared for competition until they turn three, as all do, on Jan. 1.)
Pause here. Justify and Magnum Moon are both bucking what is known as the Apollo Curse. The last horse to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old was Apollo, in 1882. But racing is a different sport than it was in Apollo's day: Most notably, horses are bred for short, brilliant careers and guided accordingly. And the curse has nearly been broken more than once in recent years: In 2007, Curlin, who had not raced as a 2-year-old, started from the disadvantageous number 2 post position at Churchill and was jostled for half a mile before finishing third. He went on to be the best of his generation, winning the Preakness and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Five years later Bodemeister endured a speed duel with 45--1 long shot Trinniberg, and was only caught in the final jumps of the Derby by I'll Have Another.
However, there is some reason the curse has endured. Horses who have trained and raced as 2-year-olds have a stronger base from which to withstand the rigors of the Derby prep season and of the Derby itself. But increasingly, horses are brought to the Derby fresh. "There are a lot of hurdles," says Baffert, who trains Justify. "You need racing luck, you need to get away on the first jump. But somebody is going to break the curse."
Mendelssohn, trained by Aidan O'Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore, won March's United Arab Emirates Derby, a 13/16-mile race conceived in 2000 principally as a Derby prep for European horses. But no winner has prevailed at Churchill Downs. Mendelssohn has the best chance yet to end that curse. Regally bred and sold for $3 million at a yearling auction in '16, Mendelssohn switched from turf (where he won a Breeders' Cup race last fall) to dirt this year and has won all of his races since. He took the UAE Derby by a whopping 18 lengths, the most impressive victory of any Derby tune-up.
If any of the three emerges victorious from the Derby, he will be regarded as a Triple Crown threat. Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, 2-year-old champion and Blue Grass Stakes winner Good Magic, Florida Derby winner Audible and Bolt d'Oro, who was beaten by Justify at Santa Anita, are notable contenders too.
It is customary that the Derby winner is either declared a worthy champion or derided as the beneficiary of circumstance—such as surviving a rodeo with 20 participants. But this year there is a good chance that the winner will wear roses and respect.
"SOMEBODY IS GOING TO BREAK THE CURSE," SAYS BAFFERT, WHO TRAINS THE UNDEFEATED JUSTIFY (ABOVE), THE EARLY FAVORITE.
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