'Twas a time on the trail to Louisville that "battle-tested" was a word often tossed between discerning handicappers and horsemen. Pin that moniker on your Kentucky Derby horse and you knew you had a live one capable of slugging it out when the dirt started flying. Scrappy performers like Silver Charm would look you in the eye and say, "Not today, punk."
But trends of old have become dusty and worn in this drive-through society. Today's "B" word is not "battle-tested," but rather "brilliant." Folks look deep into their pocket books and wallets to find brilliant racehorses, those capable of "Wow!" performances and fleet flashes. Tough? That's for the Sean Connery era. We're talking more Leonardo DiCaprio nowadays.
Measuring brilliance can't be done on a stick, with a GPS or holding a contraption with blinking red lights. It's one of those "know it if I see it" kind of things. But one thing almost universally synonymous with a race horse's brilliance is the ability to dominate. Such action leads to another key "B" word -- "blowout."
The single-most important, positive trend that I've tracked with the current era's Derby winners is the ability to blow out inferior competition. When you have a large span between the haves and have nots, it's often a two-way pull that leads to wide margins on the racetrack. As more and more sprint-bred and lightly raced horses toss their hats into the fiery 10-furlong ring at Churchill Downs, it's bound to happen. Those who have "it" are going to dominate.
Don't believe me? Check out this chart:
The past seven Derby winners all have been able to destroy their foes when presented the opportunity. Folks, this is not as common as you think on a resume, boasting win photos that require a search warrant for the runner-up. Affirmed and Secretariat would not make the above list, topping out at eight-length blowouts as their pre-Derby bests. Last year's 20-horse field boasted just three runners who had won a race by double-digits, among them were eventual one-two-finishers Big Brown and Eight Belles. Four of the 20 in 2007 had such a previous victory, including winner Street Sense, third-place Curlin and fourth-place I'mawildandcrazyguy (you didn't have him; don't lie).
That intriguing ability to be brilliant on their best day has translated into mismatches on the first Saturday in May. The last three Derbies have seen at least 8-1/4 lengths between the first and third-place finishers. Check out the win margins on Kentucky Derby renewals since 2000:
I bet you'd be shocked to learn that only 15 of the first 125 renewals of the Kentucky Derby were won by four lengths or more. But in the past eight years alone, it's been done FOUR times. Neither Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Seattle Slew or Secretariat offered three lengths of daylight on their Derby bridesmaids. What's more, Northern Dancer, War Admiral and Swaps did not COMBINE to win their Derbies by four lengths.
When you put these recent mismatches in historical perspective, the current decade rates as the gaudiest run of Kentucky Derby decadence since the 1940s (an era that featured no less than four Triple Crown winners: Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation). Since 2000, the average Derby win margin has been a spacious 3.19 lengths with only one edition settled by a length or less.
Check out the Derby finishes by decade and it's impossible to dispute the wide chasm in competition in recent years.
So what type of brilliance have we seen from the Derby 135 class this season? Very little has surfaced in that 8 to 10-length real estate which has pinpointed winners this decade. In a list quite shorter than you probably think, here are the top blowouts by the leading contenders potentially on the '09 trail:
If the Derby trend based on known dominance continues, your most likely Derby 135 winner would come from the quartet of Old Fashioned, Mr. Fantasy, I Want Revenge and Friesan Fire. With the G2 Lane's End this weekend and a bevy of major preps looming on April 4 and 11, plenty of opportunities remain for a Derby 135 candidate to show off his or her brilliance. But each horse likely will only have one more shot to show off that superstar form.
Jeremy Plonk, an ESPN.com contributor since 2000, once again will be providing statistics to ESPN and NBC Sports for their upcoming Kentucky Derby national telecasts. Jeremy is part-owner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com and you can reach him about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.