They appear to have more in common with blockbuster busts than anything lasting and memorable. Kentucky Derby winners become Spiderman 3, Jurassic Park 2, 3 and World, EVERY STAR WARS PREQUIL! Pardon the caps lock.
For some reason we’ve grown to expect a lot from our Kentucky Derby winners. They won the most prestigious race in the world, certainly the most coveted, and that grants them near-automatic passage to Champion Three-Year-Old at the end of the year. It’s by no means a certainty. Only eight of the past 17 Derby winners took the Eclipse Award, but it takes a pretty significant fall from grace to shake off the Derby shine.
Why would such an anomalous race with the freakiest of conditions on a temperamental track hold so much end-of-year ramifications barely 125 days into the calendar year? Maybe we need something to talk about.
Always Dreaming’s no-excuse loss in the Jim Dandy really raised the hackles. He went out on a lonesome lead, set the pace with tepid fractions, molasses-slow for Saratoga (24, 48, 1:03) and finished third in a five-horse field. Ladies and gentlemen, our esteemed Derby winner!
“He broke really well, and it went like we were expecting,” said jockey John Velazquez. “He put in a really good fight down the lane. He just couldn’t get away from the other horses for whatever reason.”
Go up and down the Derby winning roster and you will see a slew of horses that were far more opportunistic than good.
Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos, War Emblem, Giacomo, Mine That Bird, Super Saver, Orb, Nyquist and now Always Dreaming.
Here’s a sampling of horses since 2000 that won the Derby and never won again: Mine That Bird, Orb, Monarchos, Super Saver, Nyquist.
We’ll never know how great Smarty Jones, Barbaro or I’ll Have Another could have been. For all we know, they could’ve been all timers.
Funny Cide, Street Sense (though he’d lose the Eclipse to Curlin), Big Brown, Animal Kingdom, California Chrome and, of course, American Pharoah turned out to be great horses in this small sample herd, though if you went back into the deep bench of Derby winners, you’ll likely see a similar pattern. A third are great, a third are meh, a third are forgettable.
And so in 2017 we’re left with a wide-open three-year-old crop with no real leading prospects. The one horse who appears to be in the driver’s seat, which is to say hasn’t blown his chance at true separation, is Tapwrit. Having won the Belmont Stakes impressively and training up to the Travers, a win in the Mid-Summer Derby would put him at the head of this year’s class.
The Jim Dandy/Haskell/Curlin Weekend did little to purify the water for our best three-year-olds.
The Haskell hosted a Golden Corral-style buffet of Derby runners, including Irish War Cry, a horse many thought would win the Belmont Stakes and the Haskell. What we saw was another upset, but at least we had, more or less, heard of this horse, Girvin. His fans can affectionately be called “Girverts.” Can we get a hashtag and trend that? That’s my summer campaign.
The thrilling finish to the Haskell increased the depth of the three-year-old pool by a few meters. McCracken looked like a winner as Practical Joke (on short rest) and Girvin (#girverts) dueled with the latter nailing down the photo.
This degree of parity, or relative averageness, should make for a nice field in the Travers, probably near-full.
Though Good Samaritan stole the Jim Dandy headlines and Girvin struck lightning in the Haskell, the misfire of Always Dreaming and even the Preakness winner Cloud Computing make you wonder who is ready to move forward and step up in class and whose best days may already be behind them.
Cloud Computing finished a dismal fifth in the Jim Dandy, one of those real head-scratchers or beard-strokers.
“He seemed to struggle with the track today,” said trainer Chad Brown, who at this writing is the leading trainer of the meet with 12 wins. “He just didn’t have it, and that’s about it. We are just going to have to reevaluate the horse and go from there.”
Much of what we saw underscores how the Triple Crown is its own thing, and then everything else thereafter is another season altogether. The horses we saw develop through the winter and early spring are not the same horses come summer and fall. Or maybe they are. Many times they reveal their true nature as the late-bloomers catch up to them in terms of growth, speed, stature and seasoning. Look at 2016. Nyquist v. Arrogate.
The showroom shine of the Derby winner carries with it near impenetrable lacquer, but as history has shown perhaps it’s best to call the Kentucky Derby what he is: a mediocre horse remembered for all time.
Brendan O’Meara is a freelancer writer, host of The Creative Nonfiction Podocast, and the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga.