Breeders’ Cup Juvenile: Unlikely Road to Kentucky Derby Glory?

As we get ready for the highly anticipated Breeders’ Cup weekend, 14 days and counting, a mysterious question surrounding the Juvenile still eludes me.  First off let’s answer a few of the obvious questions surrounding the pinnacle race for 2-yr-olds.   Yes, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile features some of the best 2-yr-olds in the world.  Yes, the purse of $2 Million makes this race the richest derby prep.  Has the Breeders’ Cup been held at Churchill Downs before? Of course, 7 times to be exact.  And finally, Yes, the race is considered a formidable derby prep distance of 1 1/16.

So the question that many ponder; Since its inception in 1984, why has only one horse won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby?

Street Sense was the colt who electrified the dirt at Churchill Downs.  After taking the Juvenile that was held there in 2006, he came back strong, riding the rail along with jockey Calvin Borel to win the 2007 Kentucky Derby.  Agree or disagree the Kentucky Derby is a race that along with many is carefully analyzed by recent trends.  Because of that, this year’s Juvenile winner will be watched carefully over the course of entire Derby Prep season.  As for any of the horses in the field that finish anywhere but 1st there is also a trend that you will need to keep your eye on too.  And this one that is more surprising to me than scoring the mysterious double.

More history, more data — It can either be thrown out immediately, or thought about a little more. It’s up to you, so here we go. Also dating back to the inaugural Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984, only 5 horses that went on to win the Kentucky Derby the following year even ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a 2-yr-old.  That’s right in 26 years; only 5 Kentucky Derby champs had the Juvenile registered as a prep race on their road to the roses.

Kentucky Derby Winners That Raced in the Juvenile, (Juvenile Finish)

  • Mine That Bird, 2008-09 (12)
  • Street Sense, 2006-07 (1)
  • Sea Hero, 1992-93 (7)
  • Alysheba, 1986-87 (3)
  • Spend a Buck, 1984-85 (3)

There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut cause behind this vague connection between the Juvenile and Derby.  So the question remains; is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile a hazard that needs to be avoided in order to achieve Kentucky Derby glory?  There’s plenty of discussion that could follow that question.  We could go on for hours discussing unpredictable 2-year-old’s, injuries, the Europeans or the most interesting conversation of them all: The chess match itself.

With the Kentucky Derby being the ultimate prize for a young horse and its connections, some trainers simply know immediately when their horse has the look of a champion.  In some of these instances is when a trainer may carefully dodge the Juvenile to prevent an early bloom and instead be ready for the big one on the first Saturday in May.  That is without a doubt a strategy move that has paid handsomely for a few of the sports premiere chess players.

An example of a horse that may have met this profile is the late great, Barbaro and his trainer, Michael Matz.  He started his 2 yr old campaign in November ’05, entering a MSW over a mile which is not always a common distance for your first career race.  After winning his debut, Barbaro moved swiftly onto bigger and better things.  Following his Florida Derby win, Barbaro came into the Kentucky Derby a perfect 5 for 5 and was sent off as the second choice.  Charging around the final turn and into the stretch, he was clearly the best, winning by 6 ½.  Barbaro’s performance that day was that of a horse who was ready for the main event at just the right time and he was prepped for it.

Of course there is the element of surprise as well.  2-yr-olds can be quite immature at such a young age (None of us know anything about that).  Some the sport’s most brilliant horses did not have any interest in discovering or reaching their full potential until turning 3.  The trainers for those that grew up fast after stalling early can be quick to ensure us that they knew he was a Kentucky Derby winner all along.  That just comes with the territory in this sport but early doubts were often still very clear.  How clear? Does a Claiming Race sound like a quality Derby Prep?

For anyone that doesn’t recall or didn’t catch ESPN Films, Charismatic, on ESPN this week (recommended) the road to the roses wasn’t so rosy for our ’99 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Champ.  After scuttling at age 2 and during the beginning of the season at age 3, D. Wayne Lukas made a bold move.  He fielded his colt in his first ever Graded Stakes, the Santa Catalina, after only a single maiden victory and a record that was all over the place (8: 1-0-3).  After a disappointing 5th, the doubts had to be there as Lukas moved him from Grade 2 to $65k claiming.  But as the story goes that was the race, the win that set him straight and got the progression to success underway.  Not being claimed helped out a little bit as well.  As unpredictable he was until the spring of ’99, Charismatic turned out to be a true champion that just needed a little bit more time to reach his full potential.

So these are just a couple of different routes that were taken to reach the winners circle at the Kentucky Derby.  Some horses are born and bred to be on track right away while others are on just a slightly slower progression.  Even as both avenues towards May are formidable it still doesn’t answer why a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory isn’t a stop along the way.  For that matter, it doesn’t answer why just competing in the Juvenile isn’t a common prep for the derby winner either.

I love the long shot so I’m playing the steep odds that a horse running (not necessarily wining) the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile will come back and win the 138th Kentucky Derby.  Who? That’s not even worth asking, it’s a whole other mystery that is way too early to tell, predict or even guess at.  Instead, we can re-visit this conversation when the Kentucky Derby future pools close because by then the betting publics table of Derby Contenders will be open for display.

As for the hardest double in horse racing, there’s still Street Sense but he still stands alone.  Will the remarkable double happen again in 2012 or will the mystery continue?  The answer is all too common but it’s the only way to say it; Only time will tell.

Written by: Little Brink


One comment

  1. The Juvenile is a great race, but the winner is often eclipsed by other derby prep winners in the Spring and soon forgotten. I think it is unfair to name the winner of the Juvenile as the early Derby favorite, but it does get everyone talking.

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