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Jan 27, 2012

Characteristics of a Kentucky Derby Winner

By: By Jeff Frank, Sports Analyst

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - For the longest time, thoroughbreds raced four, five, even six times in their three-year-old season prior to the Kentucky Derby. The norm these days is just two or three with the races spaced out a month at a time.

In fact, the last five Derby winners hit the track just twice in their three- year-old campaign before the first Saturday in May. In 2007, Street Sense opened up his season with a nose victory over Any Given Saturday in the Mar. 17 Tampa Bay Derby and then finished second in the Blue Grass four weeks later. The next year, Big Brown picked up back-to-back victories at Gulfstream Park in March before taking home the roses.

Mine That Bird parlayed a pair of losses at Sunland Park in late February and March to win the Derby in 2009. Two years ago, Super Saver won on the slop at Churchill Downs after losing the Tampa Bay Derby and the Arkansas Derby in March and April, respectively. Last year, the lightly raced Animal Kingdom prevailed off two preps - an entry-level allowance loss on Mar. 3 followed by a win in the Spiral on Mar. 26.

As one can see, it doesn't really matter if the horses win or not prior to the Kentucky Derby. The key is to have enough graded earnings before the beginning of May to guarantee a spot in the Run for the Roses.

This year, a few of the key contenders will have only two three-year-old prep races, so for those folks who like to wager on trends, keep the names Union Rags, Sabercat, and maybe Dullahan in mind.

Another key attribute for a Kentucky Derby winner is a victory or a close second in a 1 1/8-mile race. Animal Kingdom (2011), Big Brown (2008), Barbaro (2006), Smarty Jones (2004), War Emblem (2002), Monarchos (2001), and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) all won going nine-furlongs.

Super Saver (second by a neck in 2010), Street Sense (second by a nose in 2007), and Funny Cide (second by one half-length in 2003) all just missed winning at 1 1/8-miles prior to the Derby. The only two years since 2000 this trend has not held true were 2005 and 2009 when Giacomo and Mine That Bird, respectively, crossed the wire first at 50-1.

Giacomo at least had a pair of nine-furlong attempts finishing third, beaten 1 1/4-lengths as the 8-5 favorite in the Sham, and then running fourth, beaten by two in the Santa Anita Derby. Mine That Bird was 13-1 when he ran fourth, beaten 3 1/4-lengths in the Sunland Derby. It is imperative to finish first, second, third, or fourth, in the final prep race as the last horse to win the Derby finishing fifth or beyond was Iron Liege some 55 years ago.

The most noticeable trend is the two-year-old jinx as Apollo in 1882 was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without a start at two. That means Todd Pletcher's Spring Hill Farm, who burst on the scene with a dazzling 6 1/4- length score in a seven-furlong maiden race at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 14, will have a tough time catching up to his contemporaries in the coming months.


With most of the Kentucky Derby entrants coming to Churchill Downs with fewer and fewer starts, a horses' pedigree is a vital way of narrowing down the field to a more manageable number.

That is one reason why two-year-old champion Hansen is way down on my "Dirty Dozen" list. Despite all the early accomplishments, his breeding does not suggest success as the distances increase.

Hansen's sire Tapit has produced a ton of solid runners, including Trappe Shot, Tapizar, and Stardom Bound, but not many have won past nine-furlongs. His dam side, going back a few generations, lacks any sort of stamina to make up for his distance-challenged sire line.

Another top runner, Discreet Dancer, has all the talent to be one of this year's top milers but asking him to go another quarter-mile might be his undoing.

The jury is out on his sire Discreet Cat as his first crop just turned three this year. Still, his dam, Pretty Discreet, won the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga and his sire, Forestry, sent out Shackleford who won last year's Preakness.

Discreet Dancer comes from a top-notch female line. His second dam, Bering Cruise, is a half-sister to Love Me True, whose son Duke of Marmalade won multiple long-distance Group 1 races overseas. His third dam, Lassie's Lady, is a half-sister to Weekend Surprise, who produced A.P. Indy and Summer Squall.

Nevertheless, Discreet Dancer's dam, West Side Dancer, has produced just one other foal, the four-year-old sprinter, Travelin Man. The odds are strong that Discreet Dancer has a better chance of stretching out his speed than his older half-brother, but winning graded races over a-mile-and-an-eighth is still a question mark.

To that end, the top pedigrees on the 2012 Kentucky Derby trail belong to Sky Kingdom, Alpha, Russian Greek, Algorithms, and Casual Trick.

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