I’ve always thought the Kentucky Derby was a prize you couldn’t buy, that there was something mystical and magical about this most unique of all American horse races, one that put the Everyman owner on equal footing with the most powerful stables in the world.
The roll listing the Derby’s 143 previous winners includes many of the leading breeding and racing operations in the history of the Turf: Col. E.R. Bradley, Harry Payne Whitney, Belair Stud, Greentree, Calumet Farm, King Ranch, Darby Dan, Meadow Stable and the Hancock family’s Claiborne and Stone farms. Most of their Derby winners were homebreds, the result of matings carefully planned to yield the best possible results on the racetrack, often involving bloodlines they’ve had in their possession for generations.
What’s helped make the Derby so endearing to the public, however, is its utter unpredictability and inclusiveness. For every winner from Calumet Farm there’s one from upstarts like Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney, the Western-based owner and trainer of 1955 winner Swaps; Jack Price, the breeder, owner and trainer of 1961 winner Carry Back who based his modest horse operation in Ohio; or Seattle Slew’s owners Mickey and Karen Taylor and Jim and Sally Hill, who parlayed a $17,500 yearling purchase into the 1977 Triple Crown winner and a major stallion and sire of sires.
More recently, Derby trophies have been hoisted by the likes of 2003 winner Funny Cide’s owners, the Sackatoga Stable, a fun-loving group of former high school pals who came to Churchill Downs in a school bus to avoid exorbitant limousine costs. When Mine That Bird – a gelding from New Mexico by way of Canada – crossed the finish line in front at 50-1 odds in the 2009 Run for the Roses, writers on deadline were heard to mutter “Mine That Who?” And, of course, the Derby definition for egalitarianism came in 2014 when California Chrome – a horse with the most humble of bloodlines – turned their rookie co-breeders and co-owners, Perry Martin and Steve Coburn, into instant celebrities.
This year feels different. I’m beginning to think maybe you can buy the Derby. The 44 percent reduction in the North American foal crop – from 2005, when 38,365 foals were born, to the 21,500 projected for this year – may be having an effect on our classic races. It could be the concentration of so many major stables and their best horses in a handful of barns run by so-called “super trainers.” Or possibly it’s the strategic alliances being formed among major racing stables that allow them to spread the risk and own a percentage of more top horses than if they were doing it on their own. Many of the leading contenders in this year’s prospective Kentucky Derby field campaign for two or more owners who have their own racing stables. For some, the partnerships make good business sense and are designed to increase the chances of landing a piece of a top stallion prospect. For others it’s the thrill of standing inside the saddling paddock on Derby day with a chance of grasping a handle of the Derby trophy a half-hour later.
Whatever the reason, 2018 does not seem like a year in which we’ll get one of those David beats Goliath stories, since Goliath has most of the field covered. Of the top 20 on the current Kentucky Derby points leaderboard, Thirteen were purchased as yearlings or 2-year-olds in training for an average price of just over $600,000 and a median of $405,000. Topped by the $3-million UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn, the list includes just one horse that sold for less than the $60,000 national average for yearlings in 2016 – that being Fountain of Youth winner Promises Fulfilled, bought for a paltry $37,000.
Among those with homebreds pointing for the Derby are such major outfits as Godolphin, Calumet Farm, Juddmonte and WinStar.
Many racing fans, and those in the general public who tune in to our sport once a year, cheer for the underdog to win the Kentucky Derby. This year, it will be tough just to find one.
That’s my view from the eighth pole.
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