Kentucky Derby 2018: beyond the whiskey and roses

By Northstar Director Elizabeth Dickerson

Most folks in the United States don’t pay much attention to Thoroughbred racing, at least not until the first Saturday in May, when the urge to go out and find a silly hat and drink a few too many mint juleps takes over even the most sensible and least horse savvy amongst us. The good news is that many charitable organizations use the Kentucky Derby as a fundraising vehicle, including rehoming or retirement organizations that work to give off the track Thoroughbreds a second career or a soft place to land, and so our somewhat illogical urges to appear in public looking like a prize rooster at the county fair might be forgiven. Even more good news is that by the time we all join in singing My Old Kentucky Home, the sheer thrill of twenty of the world’s finest equine athletes about to burst out of the starting gate, coupled with the aforesaid mint juleps, has lessened the pain of the wagers you may have made- and are about to lose- based on color, a whimsical name, or a popular celebrity stating that they just bought a minority share in the horse whose ticket you now hold.


 

 Lizzie, Dot and Kit in Maine, 2014. Registered names Bold Minstrel and Snowy Danyelle.

It may seem as though I am preparing you for some education on choosing a Derby winner so that you can make a more horsemanlike, if not more remunerative, decision. Yes, I am- well, sort of. The Kentucky Derby is a moment in Thoroughbred racing that can only be described as a melee. To pick a winner in a field of twenty horses, none of whom have ever run the distance of the Derby, is a task that confounds even the most seasoned handicapper. If, fueled by the excitement of the Derby, you decide to wager on the Preakness, which is the next race of the Triple Crown series, there’s no way you’re not going to bet on the winner of the Derby. And if a horse wins both the Derby and the Preakness? Deep down inside, there’s a part of us that wants that Triple Crown win, no matter how steep the odds. We’re betting the farm. But the statistical likelihood of a Triple Crown winner is pretty slim. Often, horsemen make it to the Belmont Stakes only to watch their dreams of greatness snatched away in the last few seconds of the race. In 2015, when American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, trainer Bob Baffert had experienced this defeat twice: once in 1997 when Touch Gold charged in from nowhere to steal victory from Silver Charm, and again in 2002 when War Emblem fell to his knees at the gate. Victor Espinoza was aboard War Emblem on that fateful day, and also up on California Chrome in the 2014 Belmont when déjà vu happened all over again. Chrome was clipped by another horse coming out of the gate, and all who watched could see there was just something wrong with the little colt with a fighting heart loved by so many. Courageously, Chrome finished his race, though it was discovered afterward that his fetlock was cut badly. Co-owner Steve Coburn, bitterly disappointed, called other owners cheaters and cowards for not running in all three of the Triple Crown races at a post-Belmont press conference. His statements may have been unsportmanlike, but the truth is that a horse can be entered in just one of the three races. If a horse has competed in all three, that horse is bound to be weary. Coming in with proverbial fresh horses in the Belmont can spoil a Triple Crown dream.

 

 The 2014 Northstar Board of Directors and Friends Derby Party, at the Samoset Resort in Rockport, Maine.

Despite losing the Belmont, Chrome continued on to be one of the winningest horses ever, with career earnings of $14,752,650, but Espinoza didn’t make it first under the wire in the third leg of the Triple Crown until the next year, when without a shadow of a doubt, American Pharoah burst from the gate at the Belmont and led wire to wire to the sound of millions of screaming fans. No photo finish needed: the best horse in the world made it abundantly clear that he was large and in charge. Penny Chenery was in the stands that day: the woman who had the faith and fortitude to withstand financial disaster, death, and societal criticism so that she could bring Secretariat to the world lived just long enough to watch Pharoah come within 2.24 seconds of her horse’s epic Bemont Stakes record. It is unlikely that any horse will ever break Secretariat’s record, winning the Belmont at a distance of 31 lengths. Pharoah, as good a horse as he is, still posted only the sixth fastest Belmont Stakes in history. It’s stories like this that make the Kentucky Derby and by extension the Triple Crown the stuff of the American Dream. Like the Red Sox finally breaking the curse of the Bambino, this is the part of our collective spirit that refuses to believe we cannot attain the impossible.

That’s why I had to go see Mine That Bird, when he came to visit us here in Pagosa. If you haven’t watched his Kentucky Derby win, go to You Tube and find out why his jockey is nicknamed Calvin Bo-Rail. I had to look Birdman in the eyes, because the Kentucky Derby is a story of hope; of a horse campaigned by a few underdog cowboys with a sudden flush of money and maybe not much in the way of high-falutin’ manners beating the bluebloods of Kentucky, and a moment when those of us who sometimes feed our Thoroughbreds before we eat resolve once again to pull out our pedigrees and work on hypothetical matings, determined to find that champion cross. Because, yes, while the Derby is a twenty horse traffic jam infused with whiskey and voodoo, there is a method to this madness. Penny Chenery knew a few things about bloodlines. Underdog champions Mine That Bird and California Chrome, despite public conception, really weren’t freaks of nature. In the case of Chrome, his sire was Lucky Pulpit, who in turn was sired by Pulpit. Taking it back two more steps, we see A.P. Indy and then 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. Slew’s male line was full of leading sires- Nearco, Nasrullah and Bold Ruler. He was even inbred to two of the greatest female families of all time, La Troienne and Frizette. With Mine That Bird, there was one glaring aspect of his pedigree that had not yet quite been recognized as of 2009: his broodmare sire, Smart Strike, had not yet been granted the status of Chef de Race, which changes something called the dosage index, or DI, a factor that many breeders and handicappers study very closely. As a result, no one really looked at Slew, since they didn’t think he had both the speed and the stamina ratio required for the race.

 

 Lizzie and Mine That Bird, June 2017, in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

Let me explain. The Chef-de-Race method of assigning a dosage index to horses was developed by Dr. Steve Roman in the 1980s from earlier and similar models. Certain sires are assigned Chef-de-Race status, and points are allocated depending on aptitudinal groups. The groups are classified as Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid or Professional, with "Brilliant" indicating that the sire's progeny fared best at very short distances and "Professional" denoting a propensity for very long races on the part of the sire's offspring. The other three categories are distributed between these two points on the spectrum in the order listed. If a horse’s sire is on the Chef-de-Race list, it counts 16 points for the group to which the sire belongs. A grandsire counts 8 points, a great-grandsire 4, and a great-great grandsire 2. Female progenitors do not count directly, but if any of their sires are on the chef list, then those points accrue. There is another system that breeders use to assess female lines called the Reines-de-Course created by Ellen Parker in 1991, based on the female family lines that all Thoroughbreds are assigned as part of their pedigree. While the work of Roman and Parker is relatively recent, these aspects of breeding analysis have been used since the time of the Goldolphin Arabian. Roman and Parker simply took this work into modern times and developed easier to use models.

As we all hear from sports announcers before the big race, the Kentucky Derby is the longest race that all of the entrants will have run. The challenge is to see which horses will be able to keep up both speed and stamina. The Roman system of dosage is a decent method of determining Brilliance vs. Professionalism, though as in the case of Mine That Bird, if a sire has not yet been rated as a chef, it takes some historical knowledge of pedigree and race analysis to predict how the horse will handle the grueling campaign that is the Triple Crown. It also doesn’t hurt to pay attention to the jockey. It takes skill to pilot an animal weighing over a thousand pounds and running at 35 mph so close to 19 other similar animals that you could reach out and touch them. A good example of jockey skill coming into play was the 2012 Belmont Stakes, won by Union Rags. Owner Phyllis Wyeth, yes those Wyeths, had dreamed that her horse won the Derby. The only problem was, she’d sold the horse. She decided to follow her instinct, and buy back the horse at a loss. Her horse didn’t win the Derby or the Preakness, but John Velasquez got the trip in the Belmont and with some very shrewd riding, brought home victory.

While we are talking about jockeys, you might notice that Thoroughbred racing isn’t exactly an equal oppportunity sport yet. Most trainers, owners, and jockeys are men. There is one woman jockey who has won a Triple Crown race: Julie Krone aboard longshot Colonial Affair. Sadly, in the same race, favored entrant, Prairie Bayou, suffered a fracture in that race and ultimately had to be euthanized. Julie herself is lucky to be with us. Flack jackets, as the protective kevlar vests that jockeys wear are called, were not required gear during most of the time she rode. She was approached by a sales representative asking her to try one just before a race one day, and she’s alive today because she said yes. She fell during the race and took a hoof to the chest. The kevlar vest saved her life. Today, they are required racing equipment.

Another method for analyzing race potential is the Beyer Speed Figure, which was developed in the 1970s by Andrew Beyer, a racing writer. Beyers are a ratio of the finishing time of a horse and the inherent speed of the track surface. The higher the Beyer speed, the better the performance. There are problems with this system of calculation that would probably bore you if I tried to explain them, which is one of the reasons I like to look breeding, past performances, and the trainer-jockey combination before deciding on a race. However, Beyers have become a standard in handicapping.

 

Now that I’ve told you a little bit about race analysis and the history of our sport, you’re probably wondering who I think will win this year’s Run for the Roses. I don’t always pick the winner of the Derby successfully, despite the many hours I spend on analyzing each horse, which I think is why I love this race so much. To make any money on Derby Day, a prudent bettor would do well to focus on the horses potentially in the second, third, and forth positions, but that’s not what the Derby is all about. This year, we also have an exceptionally talented field. Even if you know nothing about racing or bloodlines, there’s a horse for everyone. Gronkowski has now been scratched, which will disappoint New England Patriots fans, but perhaps you might fancy Magnum Moon, simply for the name. Thoroughbred naming convention is that the sire and the dam’s names are combined in a whimsical fashion, mainly as a memory aid to breeders and bettors. The namers of Gronkowski clearly didn’t follow this practice, but Magnum Moon is by Malibu Moon out of Dazzling Song, who traces her pedigree back to Giant’s Causeway. Some might go with Justify, simply because one’s heart soars to see this beast of a colt fly down the stretch. Or you might heed my words, and notice the presence of Pulpit in Justify’s pedigree. Pop quiz: who was Pulpit’s grand-sire?

Maybe you are wondering how horses are entered to run in the Derby, or whether you can sign up your colt if you happen to have twenty five grand in your pocket for the entry fee, you are a licensed trainer and owner, you know someone who is licensed to ride and can make weight, and you picked up a fast colt at Keeneland a few years ago at the bargain price of six hundred grand.

Even if you happen to be so fortunate, you still need to campaign your colt on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, which is a new qualifying system that began in 2012. You can’t just head over to Churchill and drop some cash on the racing secretary. The year before the big race, a series of races is designated, with each race assigned points that count towards consideration for the Derby. Some races count more than others, and this year, races in Europe have been added. As a result of some of the races having more qualifying points possible than other races, a colt can be entered in fewer races of higher-points valued races and qualify. For example, Magnum Moon has only started four times and significantly, has not raced as a two year old, when a young colt’s bone density is not as up to the task of withstanding high race speeds. As a result, the Malibu Moon colt may be more physically in shape for the grueling task that is the Run for the Roses. Foaling dates can also come into play: even though every Thoroughbred is assigned an arbitrary date of January 1 as their birthday, an earlier-foaled colt is going to have stronger bone density, better growth, and better stamina. Post position in the Derby, as we all know, is also a major factor- a good horse can get a lousy trip in the Derby simply because of the size of the field and the post position at the gate.

There’s another, less attractive, factor in horse racing that many of us in our frilly hats and top coats may not consider: race day medications. In 2012, the racing world was poised for a potential Triple Crown winner, as I’ll Have Another, trained by Doug O’Neill, had won the Derby and the Preakness. However, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) ruled that O’Neill couldn’t enter the Belmont unless he made all daily vet records public due to a previous drug violation. The day before the Belmont, the decision was made to scratch I’ll Have Another, according to O’Neill, because some inflammation was found after a work. Examinations of the vet records, made public as a result of the NYRA ruling, told another story. I’ll Have Another, at the age of 3, had chronic osteoarthritis and had been receiving medication for the condition for some time before the pre-Belmont injury. Doping had got the colt to the races. Withdrawing the colt from the race may have prevented a catastrophic breakdown involving loss of life of both human and horse.

America leads the world in catastrophic race track breakdowns. As many as 20 Thoroughbred racehorses are breaking down at tracks across America each day. Many believe the problem to be multifold: both raceday medications that mask lameness symptoms, conformation issues that have developed as breeders seek speed over stamina, and the practice of racing horses at the age of two before bone density has solidified. In recent years, many in and outside the Thoroughbred industry have called for a revision of the rules and more ethical racing standards, to some good effect.

 

My Graduate, 2016, Pagosa Springs, Colorado. 

While the Kentucky Derby keeps us fixated on the fairy-tale like qualities of racing, from the turrets of Churchill Downs to the ritual of a Derby party, it’s been the fate of the thousands of underdogs competing unknown, at fairgrounds or at barely-attended tracks, that are the focus of Thoroughbred rescue organizations and advocates. In addition to breakdowns, another serious issue facing the Thoroughbred is the very real possibility of ending up on a slaughter-bound truck, despite industry attempts at regulation. Horse slaughter is still illegal in the United States, but transport of horses to slaughter is not. Canada recently shut down most importation of horses from the United States, because of changing requirements in the EU concerning race day medications in meat intended for human consumption. There are many rescue and rehoming organizations across our country who try to save as many from slaughter as they can, but it’s very difficult for horse rescue organizations to stay financially solvent. In the past four years, an organization called the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance has formed and tried to create standards for Thoroughbred rescue, and give financial support to the rescues that meet their criteria. When you see former jockey Donna Brothers ride out to interview the winner of the Derby, her horse will most likely be sporting a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance saddle blanket.

Then there are those of us like me: I started my little rescue back in 2012 when a few Thoroughbreds who’d been starved as weanlings needed a place to crash. I pulled another mare off a meat truck in Virginia, after looking at her and realizing that some of the best turf lines in the mid-Atlantic were about to be thrown in a pot au feu somewhere in France with a bouquet garnis. She’s still here with me in Pagosa Springs, as are a couple of the now grown-up weanlings, and someday I hope to breed her to Street Life, a Street Sense colt who finished fourth in the 2012 Belmont. There’s plenty of people who would trash me for that, since I don’t exactly have the spay and neuter mindset of a rescue, but I’ve got my dreams still and if it doesn’t work out, I’m prepared to give the colt a forever home, since all I ever do is go to work to feed horses anyhow. I’ve also got with me a Touch Gold gelding we call Satchel, Touch Gold being the upsetter in the 1997 Belmont, who stole Bob Baffert’s hopes of a Triple Crown. Satchel won nearly $80,000 in the course of his career, but he has no left jugular vein. He was shot up with so many race day medications that it collapsed. His trainer was eventually ruled off the track, but not before also pin firing one of Satchel’s legs to try to cauterize a bowed tendon so he could continue racing without a layover. It’s a miracle Satchel can do much of anything, but he manages to lug me around our little ranch and keep me entertained with his antics. He’s safe with me forever. You might think I would hate racing as a result, but I don’t. I still love the sport. I still believe that we can fix what is wrong with the sport. Kentucky Derby Day is still that special moment when I let myself believe that the universe still shines on an underdog, and miracles can happen. The Derby has its Cinderella stories that keep me dreaming, such as the tale of a woman named Karen Taylor, a former flight attendant, and her husband Mickey, a lumberman, who bought a big, gangly colt named Seattle Slew for $17,500. There’s Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Mine That Bird, and California Chrome. And maybe someday, a colt from a little town no one’s ever heard of in Colorado called Pagosa Springs, thundering down the backstretch out of nowhere. Just maybe.

 

 

Lizzie and Satchel, registered name Touch a Prince, at Northstar Horse Rescue, Pagosa Springs, Colorado.