NEW ORLEANS, LA -- Derby Fever hits in earnest at the end of January, a new season underway. Last year's precocious runners train toward their 2011 debuts. Late developers arrive on the scene. Early preps loom.
As distances increase and trainers challenge their charges in buildup toward the 1 ¼ mile Kentucky Derby -- one of the longest remaining tests for the 3-year-old American racehorse -- fans and pundits form opinions and alliances. Some favor fleet-footed colts from the West. Others fancy promising hopefuls from the East. We give precedence to those conditioned by Hall of Fame horsemen, but keep an eye on lesser-known guys hoping to get it right. Come February, we're already tracking candidates we think will get the distance on the first Saturday in May.
Not so fast.
While early preps serve as stepping stones to the big day, they're just that -- early. And the biggest key to a runner's likelihood of visiting the winner's circle come Derby day lies not in his first performances of the season, but in the inherent characteristics passed down through generations. That's why insiders give precedence to pedigree.
An educated guess
"Who's your Daddy?" In horse racing, that's the million-dollar question. People devote entire careers to the study of pedigree -- tracing a horse's genetics down through generations, all the way back to the bloodlines of historical runners long gone.
Alan Porter is one such expert, a principal operator of the group Pedigree Consultants. With offices in the U.S., Australia, and England, Porter and partner Byron Rogers have been involved in the development of over 150 stakes winners worldwide including Goldikova, Chamberlain Bridge, Devil May Care, Bribon, Friend's Lake, and Ice Box, the runner-up in last year's Derby.
"Pedigree and stamina matter particularly for the Kentucky Derby because none of these horses have ever gone a mile and a quarter," Porter said. "We only have running style to go on, which, if we don't consider pedigree, leaves us guessing as to whether they'll get the distance."
At this point in the season it can be difficult to project where late runners, just getting their careers started, rank by class and competition. Horses that are scoring allowance victories and moving up the ladder toward graded stakes starts haven't had a chance to knock heads with last year's more precocious 2-year-olds. Rags to Riches, for instance, won Churchill Downs' prestigious race for fillies, the 2007 Kentucky Oaks (and, eventually, the Belmont Stakes), but she came into that season with only one start on her record -- a 4th-place finish in a 5 ½-furlong maiden special weight made as a 2-year-old in 2006.
"A horse could win the Derby that hasn't even started yet," said trainer Neil Howard, who trains three potential contenders in Machen, Prime Cut, and Lecomte Stakes winner Wilkinson. Machen, a son of Distorted Humor, will run in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes off a five-length allowance score here on Jan. 30.
There's no reason not to consider a horse like that when looking for Derby or Oaks potential, of course. But a look at pedigree can simply help one make a more educated guess as to whether a contender has the stuff to go the distance.
"With a lot of these horses at this point, fewer starts can be okay," said bloodstock expert Sid Fernando. "You want to see progression from two to three. Some of the popular horses are so mature at two that you've already seen the best of them. So if you have a later-developing horse, pedigree can be very useful in determining if a horse is suited for the Derby, the first and one of few times young 3-year-olds have to go that distance. Of course, if every horse in the Derby has the pedigree of a sprinter, one is still going to get up and win at 10 furlongs and that doesn't necessarily mean the horse is a 10-furlong horse."
Research, research, research
And therein lies the anomaly. Because sometimes in racing, things just don't go according to plan. Horses that could be bred to go the distance wind up better sprinters. Horses that figure to be speedsters remarkably end up holding on. Training delays, physical issues, and good old racing luck combine to help or hinder the development of runners regardless of royal bloodlines.
"Pedigree can be hit and miss because the racehorse is a hybrid, and different injections of different genes and bloodlines can combine from different angles," said Ken McPeek, who conditions Derby hopefuls Rogue Romance and Casper's Touch and Kentucky Oaks hopeful Kathmanblu, among others. Rogue Romance and Kathmanblu will start at Fair Grounds Race Course this Saturday in the Risen Star and the Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra Stakes, respectively.
"That rare combination -- the stamina needed to make it through the Derby with the speed to win it the last quarter of a mile -- that's what we're after," said McPeek. "But choosing a horse solely off pedigree is going to be far from exact, so what's even more important is that the horse physically looks like it can go a mile and a quarter. You have to be able to look at both -- to study the pedigree and the horse."
Sometimes, a horse will win the Kentucky Derby even when his pedigree says he can't. Take 2004 victor Smarty Jones for instance.
"There was a 'fool you' type of horse," Porter said. "He was meant to be very fast on paper -- by Elusive Qualty, who broke the world record for a mile and was a graded winner at seven-eighths and a mile, out of a mare by the champion sprinter Smile. He showed speed when he won the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes, then he came back in the Southwest at a mile as a 2-year-old and had some people thinking that was as far as he wanted to go. He really did surprise because really on just a crude reading of his pedigree he appeared to be a little questionable."
Rogue Romance is a son of Smarty Jones whose dam, Lovington, is a daughter of Afleet -- the grandsire of 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex.
"Pedigree, conformation, putting the two together, it's like art," McPeek said. "It's this mystery everybody's trying to solve but there's really no solution; sometimes there's success, sometimes there's failure."
And sometimes, in spite of pedigree and bloodlines, a runner's connections just decide to take a chance.
Last year McPeek trained Noble's Promise, a Cuvee colt who, in Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes, ran a game second by a head to 3-year-old champ and eventual Preakness, Haskell, and Indiana Derby winner Lookin At Lucky. He ran fifth in the Kentucky Derby then shipped overseas to run fifth in the St. James' Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot, but finally got his only win of the season when McPeek shortened him up to run in the six-furlong Jimmy V Stakes at Churchill Downs in November.
"He was a perfect example of a horse who looked like he belonged early on," Fernando remarked. "He was performing pretty good in preps, looked like he was going to be 'that kind' of runner, but people in pedigree never thought he'd stay. Still, he ran game. And the thing is that some of these horses are so game, they're going to stay longer because they have a lot of heart."
Believe it or not, last year's Kentucky Derby winner was the kind of horse whose bloodlines showed obvious signs of potential victory. By Maria's Mon, a stallion who had already sired a Derby winner in Monarchos, and out of a mare by well-known distance sire A.P. Indy (himself a Belmont winner), Super Saver figured to run all day. He also had Derby connections through his dam's sister, the dam of Bluegrass Cat, who finished second in the 2006 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes before winning the Haskell Invitational by seven lengths and running second to Bernardini in the Travers.
"Although Super Saver could be considered a fairly ordinary Derby winner, he's a very good example of a horse who really wasn't that impressive going into the Derby, but wasn't that bad," Porter said. "He had solid form going in -- he'd been third in the Tampa Bay Derby and second in the Arkansas Derby going a bit further behind a horse who got loose on the lead -- he was headed in the right direction. And if you looked at his pedigree as well as his form, you could see he was practically guaranteed to stay."
Occasionally, experts find the reverse to be true as well. Case in point, 2010 contender Discreetly Mine, who won the Risen Star last year, yet wound up 13th in the Derby. Taken back to shorter distances, he ran four times and won three graded stakes races, the final score coming in the Grade 1 King's Bishop Stakes -- the most prestigious event for sprinters at Saratoga Race Course.
"At first glance, by Mineshaft out of a mare who'd won the 1 ¼-mile Alabama Stakes, you'd think he was going to run all day," Porter remarked. "But if you really look at that mare's other victories, all of them came sprinting. So that's where the research part comes in, breaking down the exact information in the past performances of a runner's family tree."
This year, of course, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old Champion Uncle Mo is viewed as the horse to beat going into the Kentucky Derby. Does his pedigree say he can win the race? A look at his sire's side raises some questions, but a stout female family reassuringly answers the stamina question.
"Generally speaking, Indian Charlie horses haven't stretched out that well, but with Uncle Mo being out of a mare by Arch, who's had both sprinters and good distance horses and who himself would get a mile and a quarter, you'd hope it would balance out," Porter said.
For casual racing fans who want to improve their knowledge of the game, or for horseplayers looking for additional betting insight as we move along the road to the Derby, a little light pedigree research could equal time well-spent.
"The best way to look at young, untested 3-year-olds is to look at the sire, see what type of stamina he shows," Fernando said. "Then look at the mother and her side -- what's called the broodmare side -- and see what kind of races her side has won or what kind of winners she's produced, and who her sire is. If you look just on the basic reading of a pedigree from the sire, broodmare, and broodmare sire, for the casual fan, you can make a pretty intelligent opinion and come up with a ballpark type of Derby horse."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.