The training charts hang on barn walls, whiteboard wiped clean and rewritten late each morning, and sit in desk drawers, written into ledger books ink-smudged or pristine. The charts record past exercise and sketch the future — the walks, jogs, gallops, and breezes that lead to races.
This is the work of every trainer with any old horse. Now imagine the horseman with handsome bluebloods coming through the pipeline each season. Just how good is the animal whose name is written on the board? How far can he run? How much can his mind absorb? How far will his body bend?
Two words — Kentucky Derby — always in the background, fully acknowledged or not, and with them one large question leading to a second. Could this be a Derby horse? If yes, how best to get him there?
“With plenty of rest” has become the answer of choice. Trainers are bringing their Derby starters into the race with ever more time between starts, mirroring larger trends in a sport where horses make ever fewer starts per year and require more rest between races.
This year’s likely Derby field is actually on the whole running back on shorter rest than in several recent seasons. Just five of the 20 horses in the field’s main body made their most recent start as far back as March. But on the other hand, it’s only the first three home in the Arkansas Derby — Creator, Suddenbreakingnews, and Whitmore — coming into the Derby on three weeks’ rest, which not long ago was fairly standard.
Looking decade by decade through Derby history, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Derby winner’s prep came, on average, more than 10 days from the race. In the 1970s, the winners started an average of 13.1 days before the Derby. The average time after the final prep rose to 18.2 days in the 1980s, to 19.9 days in the ’90s, and then went up dramatically to 26.5 days in the 2000s. Since 2010, the Derby winner last raced an average of 29.1 days after his most recent start.
In the first half off the 1990s, every Derby starter came into the race having last run in April, and with a couple of exceptions, that pattern basically held through the turn of the century. The Wood Memorial in New York, the Santa Anita Derby in California, and the Blue Grass in Kentucky were three-week preps as recently as the early 2000s.
But in 2004, the Florida Derby was run seven weeks out, and two horses, Read the Footnotes and Friends Lake, didn’t race again until the Derby. Both ran poorly, but that year, for whatever reason, feels like a pivot to the changes that have become standard Derby practice. Don’t Get Mad raised one final flag for the good old days, finishing fourth in the 2005 Derby after racing the week before in the Derby Trial, a race that no longer even exists. And when Barbaro scored such a smashing 2006 Derby win while running five weeks after the Florida Derby, it cemented the momentum of the more-rest-is-better movement.
There’s a chicken-and-egg component to the trend, as tracks that host important spring 3-year-old stakes move races to adapt to race-spacing desires. Only Oaklawn Park has held firm with a three-week-out major prep, and the Arkansas Derby happened to yield the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner, American Pharoah. That might not have been the route trainer Bob Baffert would have chosen, but his colt fell behind in preparation over the winter, and Baffert had to adjust accordingly.
The same thing, coincidentally, happened in 2010 to Super Saver, trainer Todd Pletcher’s lone Derby winner, who also came out of Arkansas.
“That’s just how things unfolded for us that year because we were behind with him,” Pletcher said. “He was supposed to go to the Wood, got backward, we ended up in the Arkansas Derby, and he just flourished.”
Since 2006, Pletcher has landed three other top-three Derby placings, and two of those horses, Bluegrass Cat (second in 2006) and Danza (third in 2014), both were running on three weeks’ rest. Yet Pletcher said in an ideal world he wants much more time than that for his Derby starters.
“It depends on cards you’re dealt with a particular horse, but for me, I really like five to six weeks,” he said. “We think we have the ability to prepare horses off that kind of break. You’ve got a little bit of flexibility to see where you are, to see how your horse came out of the race, and decide whether you want to work two or three times.”
One of Pletcher’s starters this year, Outwork, runs back on a standard four weeks, but the other, Destin, races for the first time since winning the Tampa Bay Derby eight weeks ago. The layoff has come by design, and if it works, Destin will become the only Derby winner of the modern era to win after a break of more than six weeks, the gap between Animal Kingdom’s final prep and his 2011 Derby win.
“It’s a little bit unorthodox,” said Pletcher. “You’re missing a major race by taking this path. We took a horse that would have been favored in the Wood or the Blue Grass and chose not to run him, and you have to have owners willing to pass a potential stallion-making race. It’s something we talked about and that everybody was comfortable with.”
The Louisiana Derby, in which three 2016 Kentucky Derby starters — Gun Runner, Tom’s Ready, and Mo Tom — last raced, sits six weeks out. Few horsemen in this era would go three weeks, three weeks into the Derby, and that was never a consideration for Mo Tom’s trainer, Tom Amoss.
“I believe this is an idea created by the media, that six weeks or eight weeks is a problem,” Amoss said. “Each year this is brought up, and it’s brought up by people that have never trained a horse. For me, six weeks is pretty standard.”
Steve Asmussen trains the six-weeker Gun Runner as well as Creator, who is back three weeks after his Arkansas Derby win. Gun Runner, Asmussen has long said, is so generous in his training that the plan was always to race him just twice, both times at Fair Grounds, before the Derby. Gun Runner, in his major Derby work April 25, went six furlongs in 1:12.20, galloping out one mile in about 1:39. Not every horse will put so much into his work, and since Gun Runner is not an especially large animal, he keeps himself fit.
“We discovered who he is as an individual, and with his pedigree and who he is physically, not moving him around any more than once and spacing his races would help him develop best,” Asmussen said. “It’s not six weeks before the Derby so much as two races with spacing is plenty. If you’re not going to do two races with spacing, you go up to Oaklawn and have three races there. I feel very good about the decision, sitting here six days before the Derby. I think he’s sitting on the best race of his life.”
Asmussen’s two best Derby showings, third-place finishes by Nehro in 2011 and Curlin in 2007, came with horses racing on three weeks’ rest following the Arkansas Derby. That’s the path being traveled by Creator, whose connections hardly could plot a long-range Derby campaign when Creator still was a maiden Feb. 26. The next day, Creator won a maiden race by seven lengths, which propelled him to the Rebel on March 19 and on to the Arkansas Derby — a case of a horse paving his own trail to the Kentucky Derby.
“We were just very fortunate with him coming around at exactly the right time,” said Asmussen. “Taking six times to break his maiden was not the plan.”
The quick turnaround concerns Asmussen less with Creator, a deep closer, than it would with a horse who had more early speed. “He just runs the last part of it, so his style doesn’t make a race as hard on him as it does most horses,” Asmussen said.
And while all these five-, six-, or eight-week breaks allow a trainer more control over the manner of Derby preparation, there is something to be said for having a sharp horse racing three weeks after a strong performance. Creator worked in company just nine days after he raced and has been breathing fire every morning on the track.
Sometimes you rip out the page in the ledger book, wipe clean the training grid on the whiteboard, and just hope the horse takes you there.