By Bill Heller
Led by Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, the three-year-old crop of 2007 rearranged a lot of people’s thinking on what it takes to succeed on the first Saturday of May and beyond.
Street Sense not only became the first colt to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Run for the Roses the following spring, but along with the Derby's second and third place finishers, Hard Spun and Curlin, thrived later in the year. So did Tiago and Any Given Saturday, who finished seventh and eighth in the Derby and joined the top three in the starting gate for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"Maybe they did wind up in the Classic because they weren't burned out," said Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, whose undefeated 2007 Two-Year-Old Champion Colt War Pass will attempt to give him his third Kentucky Derby victory. "Last year was an exceptional crop."
The leader of the crop was Curlin, who didn't make his career debut until last February 3rd, showing that not racing at two doesn't preclude greatness at three. After winning the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders' Cup Classic, he was 2007 Three-Year-Old Champion and Horse of the Year.
So how do trainers of this year's top Kentucky Derby contenders plan their horses' schedules? Specifically, how much time off do they give their colts between their last start at two and first start at three? Has everything changed because of last year?
The 20 horses that entered the starting gate for last year's Kentucky Derby had layoffs ranging from 20 to 133 days before beginning their three-year-old campaign. Hard Spun's was just 26. Street Sense was 133.
Todd Pletcher, who led North American trainers in earnings for the fourth consecutive year, saddled four other starters in last year's Derby besides Any Given Saturday. "There's an obvious trend toward more time between races," Pletcher said last December. "The spacing of races is obviously critical. You want to peak on the first Saturday in May, but there are big stakes that you also want to do well with. There's a fine line between having a horse ready and fit to run in his first start at three and still be able to build on that. It's a delicate balance."
Pletcher's 2007 Derby quintet had layoffs ranging from 70 to 98 days. "If anything, I would lean toward making my first start even later, and maybe having only two or three starts before the Derby," he said. "If I had a horse with a real good foundation leading into winter, I'd consider going into the Derby with just two starts, one in March and one in April.
That's what Carl Nafzger did with Street Sense, the 2006 Two-Year-Old Champion Colt. Nafzger's work getting Street Sense to last year's Derby was nothing short of brilliant. "I think Carl Nafzger did a masterful job with only the two preps," Zito said.
As a two-year-old, Street Sense had five starts, culminating with his breathtaking 10-length romp in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs after finishing third by 1 ¾ lengths to Great Hunter in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity over Keeneland's Polytrack surface.
"I had five starts as a two-year-old, but it's not how many times he ran, it's how many times he played the New England Patriots vs. how many he played against a weaker team," Nafzger said. "We played against the best two starts in a row. My horse wasn't mature. He needed some time. He was still growing and developing."
Nafzger decided Street Sense would enter the Derby off two races at three. Then he delayed Street Sense's three-year-old debut an additional 2 ½ weeks until a showdown with Any Given Saturday in the Grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby last March 17th. "We had a three-week window," Nafzger said. "The horse got light on his feet. He was a little crabby traveling. We needed a couple more weeks. Actually, going into that race, I was scared Any Given Saturday would pull away and he (Street Sense) wasn't going to get enough out of it. I might not be as tight as I needed to be. I didn't want to win it as much as I needed a race I had to work hard in. He won anyway (by a nose)."
Street Sense then was nosed by Dominican in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland before winning the Derby by 2 ¼ lengths, Nafzger's second Run for the Roses, following Unbridled's victory in 1990. "If he only had two races as a two-year-old, I wouldn't have given him only two preps," Nafzger said. "I would have run him maybe four times before the Derby. The horse had what he needed."
So did Hard Spun, who had three starts as a two-year-old neatly spaced out. In fact, entering the Derby, Hard Spun had made one start in October, November, December, January, February and, in his final Derby prep, the Grade 2 Breeders' Futurity, on March 24th. His first start at three was just 26 days after his final start at two, and he won both of them. Hard Spun's gutsy second in the Derby affirmed trainer Larry Jones' wisdom in spacing his races.
"We felt like it was the right schedule for him," Jones said. "He got his career started a little late (last October 22nd). We never felt we had the time to put him into the racing wars, then give him time off. We figured how many races it would take to peak without training him hard. We tried to pick spots where he could move forward and not overmatch him. We felt once a month would take him into the Derby and have him educated enough and be able to increase his distance to keep moving forward to the mile and a quarter (of the Derby). We could probably do that 20 more times, and it wouldn't work for 20 other horses."
What will work this year?
The man with the horse to beat is Zito, seeking his third Kentucky Derby following the triumphs of Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in '94. Both had four preps at three.
Strike the Gold, who won one of three starts as a two-year-old, had two allowance races at three before finishing second by a length in the Grade 1 Florida Derby and winning the Blue Grass by three lengths leading up to his 1 ¾-length victory in the Kentucky Derby. "He was a throwback in many ways," Zito said.
Go for Gin, who won three of five starts at two, prepped for the Kentucky Derby by winning the un-graded Preview Stakes, finishing second by three-quarters of a length in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, finishing fourth in the Florida Derby and running second in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial preceding his two-length victory in the Kentucky Derby, his 10th career start. Last year, the Kentucky Derby was Street Sense's eighth lifetime start.
"At one time, you had to have four races before the Derby," Zito said. "But you're looking at 1991 and 1994," Zito said. "I don't think you can do that now. War Pass can't do that. Anak Nakal (who won the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Juvenile at Churchill Downs last November 24th), I don't know. He's not a big horse. Unfortunately, they don't make the horses like they used to anymore."
They also don't follow the same schedule. The inception of the Breeders' Cup in 1984 gave trainers of precocious two-year-olds a tangible reason to have their juveniles peak in late October or early November. "The Breeders' Cup had a lot to do with it," Zito said.
In last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, War Pass completed his perfect two-year-old season at four-for-four with a 4 ¾-length romp that left no doubt as to who the winter-book favorite for the Derby would be. Interestingly, Zito didn't follow War Pass's debut victory at Saratoga with a step up to stakes, but rather in an allowance race. War Pass then won the Grade 1 Champagne and Breeders' Cup. "He's a tremendous horse, an exceptional two-year-old," Zito said. "I don't know what he'll be at three, but boy what a heck of a two-year-old."
Zito's initial intention is to give both War Pass and Anak Nakal two or three separate Derby preps. "The thing you love to do is keep them separated until the big show," he said.
Whether War Pass will be the star of that show won't be revealed for months. "It's exciting, but I'm worried," Zito said. "Let's face it. It brings a lot of pressure. I wouldn't say bad pressure, but we'll see. I know one thing. He's talented, that's for sure."