Not since Apollo in 1882 has there been a Kentucky Derby winner who didn't race as a 2-year-old, and that's like saying "never." The history is clear: Johnny-come-latelies never win the Derby. Then again, the Arkansas Derby is clear, too: Never say "never."
Bodemeister, whose recent performance in Arkansas surpasses anything seen this Triple Crown season, could kick the last shibboleth of the Derby into the Churchill Downs infield, where it'll disappear into the sodden earth under the tread of a throng and the weight of 130 years. Yes, Bodemeister could become the first since Apollo, and that's like saying the first ever.
Apollo's Derby was so unlike today's as to be unrecognizable. That inchoate, 19th century Kentucky Derby wasn't yet racing's summit and hadn't become every horseman's goal. Horses didn't converge on it, as they do today, from every racing capital and outpost in the country. The 1882 Derby was run on a Tuesday for a purse of $1,500.
Apollo's Derby was so unlike today's as to be unrecognizable.
Apollo didn't have to outrun 19 accomplished rivals, as the modern Derby asks its winner to do. Under a feathery 102 pounds, Apollo defeated a group of 13, including an unnamed tyro that history refers to as the "Pat Malloy colt."
That Derby wasn't today's. From today's Kentucky Derby, from this turbulent maelstrom that the classic has become, from this modern cynosure and spectacle annually ritualized on the first Saturday in May, a horse unraced as a 2-year-old never has emerged with a victory. Many have tried, 47 horses in the last 56 years, 17 in the last 20, with Strodes Creek, who finished second in 1994, and Curlin, who ran third in 2007, getting closest to the roses.
But Bodemeister could get there. He didn't debut until Jan. 16, and he has raced only four times. But he could become the first modern Derby winner who didn't have a juvenile campaign -- and the second ever, to give Apollo his props -- simply because of his superior talent and speed. They're qualities that can glockenspiel almost anything on the racetrack, and they could even enable Bodemeister to outrun his inexperience.
Saturday at Oaklawn Park, in the Arkansas Derby, Bodemeister sprinted to the lead through a quick half-mile in 46.55 seconds, and from there he just continued to roll, turning back a challenge and increasing his advantage to win by 9 ½ lengths, his superior speed and talent the alchemy that transformed what seemed a competitive race into a metric of domination. It was the best performance of the season by a 3-year-old. In fact, it was better than best; it was superior by lengths to any other major prep for the Triple Crown, several lengths better in some cases.
And if not for the old shibboleth, if not for that assumption, derived logically and inductively from history's many examples, that horses unraced at 2 never win the modern Derby, Bodemeister would probably be the popular favorite. But never say "never."
Horses unraced as 2-year-olds might not have the conditioning foundation necessary for a roseate run, or so goes the argument, reasonably enough. But Bodemeister, although he didn't race, had 26 published workouts last year, starting in June and continuing through December, with some fireworks of his own, at five-eighths of a mile, on New Year's Eve. He wasn't lounging by the pool. He was working, training, learning, preparing, and his trainer, Bob Baffert, waited for him.
"He was very immature," Baffert said about the April foal, "and took a little longer to come around. He never had any problems. And he has really grown these last couple of months."
Most important, horses unraced as 2-year-olds might not have the experience necessary to overcome the traffic and the trouble that often accompany a roseate run, or so goes the argument, reasonably enough. But couldn't Bodemeister jump in front of the traffic and the trouble and just stay there?
His speed means they'll have to catch up with him to tell him he hasn't raced enough.
”-- Trainer Steve Asmussen, on Bodemeister
"His speed means they'll have to catch up with him to tell him he hasn't raced enough," joked trainer Steve Asmussen about Bodemeister's inexperience. Asmussen, who sent out Sabercat in the Arkansas Derby, won five races on closing day at Oaklawn to claim the trainer's title. The surface Saturday, he said, didn't favor speed; Bodemeister just made the track look that way. The colt's performance, Asmussen said, was "crazy impressive."
And Asmussen understands impressive. In 2007, he saddled a similarly impressive winner of the Arkansas Derby. Curlin, in fact, won by 10 ½ lengths. Afterwards, he took a brief but sparkling resume to Kentucky: He had three race and three victories, by a total of 28 lengths.
At Churchill, though, he encountered more opposing talent and more trouble than he had ever seen, but despite a rough trip, Curlin rallied to finish third in the Derby, behind Street Sense and Hard Spun. Curlin, of course, would go on to win the Preakness and the Breeders' Cup Classic and become Horse of the Year.
"The most important factor in the lack of experience is the competition," Asmussen said. The competition, he explained, can create a situation that can be favorable, or nearly impossible, for a lightly raced horse.
Curlin's class of 3-year-olds was outstanding, for it also included Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Scat Daddy and Tiago. Curlin would become the sport's all-time richest racehorse, with $10.5 million in earnings, but against a stellar group in the Derby not even his enormous talent could overcome his troubled trip and his own experience.
But one of these days, and perhaps someday soon, it'll happen that a horse unraced as a juvenile will win the first event in the famed Triple Crown series. That was Frank Brothers' prediction before the 1997 Kentucky Derby, where he saddled an inexperienced but flashy colt that some observers thought had superstar potential: Pulpit.
Pulpit won his debut stylishly Jan. 11 at Gulfstream Park, and six weeks later he won the Fountain of Youth. He hit a speed bump in the Florida Derby, where he finished second at 2-5, but then he traveled to Keeneland and won the Blue Grass Stakes by 3 ½ lengths.
At Churchill, in the Kentucky Derby, he led for about a mile before faltering and finishing fourth. But his inexperience wasn't a factor. Pulpit fractured a knee in the Derby, Brothers recalled, and the colt's performance was, in retrospect, remarkably tenacious, especially given the quality of the competition. Silver Charm won that Derby, followed by Captain Bodgit and Free House.
Experience is always valued, said Brothers, who won two-thirds of the 1991 Triple Crown with Hansel. A horse that lacks experience, a horse that perhaps didn't even race as a juvenile, ideally should have the tools, the natural speed, to avoid trouble -- as well as a clean break from the gate. Still, he said, the Derby is unique, and nothing can fully prepare a horse for what he'll encounter in that maelstrom at Churchill Downs.
"He's the kind of horse I believe can win the Derby," Brothers said about Bodemeister. "But if he gets bumped two or three times leaving the gate and he has to run again, will he do it? That's where experience comes in."
If Bodemeister is to become the first since Apollo to win the Derby without racing as a juvenile, he'll probably have to duplicate his Arkansas performance, and that was freakishly good: leading throughout for 1 1/8 miles to finish in 1:48.71, 9 ½ lengths ahead of his multiple stakes winning stablemate Secret Circle and six lengths faster than the Oaklawn Handicap a race earlier. Many horses, though, have gone freakish just prior to the Derby only to slip into mediocrity in the shadows of the Twin Spires.
I don't see anything right now that would make us think he can't progress. He's a very fit horse.
”-- Bob Baffert, Bodemeister's trainer
Bellamy Road, for example, threw a no-hitter when he won the 2005 Wood Memorial by more than 17 lengths. The effort represented a dramatic improvement, an ascension to a new level of performance, but he was no Johnny Vander Meer. He faded to seventh in the Kentucky Derby.
Millennium Wind, Sweetnorthernsaint, Sinister Minister, The Cliff's Edge, Wild Syn and Ten Most Wanted all jumped up with huge efforts immediately prior to the Kentucky Derby, where they quickly jumped back down. The confluence of unique circumstances at Churchill Downs intimidates most, but challenges some.
Charismatic jumped up, too, to win the 1999 Lexington Stakes, and War Emblem ascended steeply to a new level to win the 2002 Illinois Derby, and then they continued in their progress, going on to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
And so, as Asmussen asked, somewhat rhetorically but also curiously, was Saturday's Arkansas Derby Bellamy Road's Wood? Or was it War Emblem's Illinois Derby? Will Bodemeister, whose brief career has steadily moved forward, continue in that direction, or will his progress flatline?
"I don't see anything right now that would make us think he can't progress," Baffert said about Bodemeister, who settled in Tuesday at Churchill. "He's a very fit horse."
As for Bodemeister's lack of experience, Baffert said that no matter how many races have been run, a horse still needs things to go his way at Churchill: He still needs a good post position, a relatively clear path, a trip free of wreckage. The crush and the frenetic run to the first turn, the New York-rush-hour traffic, the avalanche of cheers from a crowd of more than 150,000, the 1 ¼-mile distance -- they can undo even the most experienced horse. And so, Baffert said, "You need luck more than anything else in the Derby."
And, of course, it helps to have a horse as talented as Bodemeister, whose recent performance in Arkansas surpasses anything seen this Triple Crown season. He even might be good enough to kick the oldest Derby shibboleth into the Churchill Downs infield.