He won't receive the famed scarlet blanket draped ceremoniously over his withers and his entourage won't rush across the track and then euphorically into the winner's circle until the afternoon of May 3. The winner won't be known and the Kentucky Derby won't be run for another 79 days or so. But, make no mistake, the Derby's being won right now.
Just as "every battle is won before it's ever fought," according to an ancient classic on military strategy, The Art of War, every race is won before it's run. Talent makes victory possible, of course. And only talent in the extreme can win a Kentucky Derby. But intelligent planning and meticulous preparation are necessary to propel that talent into the winner's circle. The miles galloped, the decisions made, and the lessons learned in February set the table for victory in May.
And so where does that leave Honor Code and Shared Belief, two of the early favorites for the 140th Kentucky Derby? Neither has raced this year. They've missed training because of minor injuries that have bumped them off their original plans and schedules. Could the injuries also bump them off the Triple Crown trail? Is time running out?
On Wednesday, at Gulfstream Park in Florida, Honor Code breezed three-eighths of a mile (in 35.66 seconds). It was his first workout since Jan. 18 and only his third since he won the Remsen Stakes on Nov. 30. Still, it was an encouraging move because it strongly suggested the big colt could return to competition next month, with the stated objective being the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 15.
Honor Code had been expected for next week's Fountain of Youth Stakes. In other words, the stressed and bruised ankles that momentarily derailed his training set him back about three weeks. And for a developing young racehorse, at Churchill Downs in May, missed training can be measured not in days or weeks but in lengths. There's no wiggle room for Honor Code now, not so much as a wiggle cubbyhole, if he's to make the Derby.
And so the situation has changed dramatically from a year ago for Honor Code's trainer, Shug McGaughey. He repeatedly, and with considerable appreciation of his good fortune, pointed out that everything went smoothly and perfectly for Orb last year, with no missteps or missed training, on their journey to the Kentucky Derby. Orb made his first start as a 3-year-old on Jan 26; with that early start, he launched himself on a winning trajectory that passed through the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby before landing him in the winner's circle, rose-clad, at Churchill Downs. At this time a year ago, Orb already had won at a distance of 1 ⅛ miles and was about to make a splash in the Fountain of Youth; Honor Code, on the other hand, has worked no farther than three-eighths of a mile. But if everything goes smoothly, he can still arrive in Kentucky as one of the favorites for the Derby.
The situation seems more precarious for Shared Belief. Because of a quarter crack, or cracked hoof, the champion juvenile of 2013 couldn't make the recent Bob Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, which had been targeted for his seasonal debut. The problematic foot has been patched, and the champ has resumed light training. But he hasn't had a serious workout in more than a month, since Jan. 3, to be exact, when he breezed five-eighths of a mile at Santa Anita in 1:00.40, and he has had only three works since he won the CashCall Futurity in mid-December.
How far has he regressed? That's the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of a question that's waddling down the Derby trail. Having missed a race, as well as some serious training, can Shared Belief be ready to run next month, in the Spiral Stakes on March 22 perhaps or, better yet, the Sunland Derby on March 23? No Kentucky Derby winner in recent memory has begun his campaign as late, and so the Preakness might be a more realistic objective for Shared Belief at this point. His trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, who has a broad perspective, won't view the horse's future through rose-colored glasses.
It's probably worth recalling, though, that the great filly Regret won the 1915 Kentucky Derby in her seasonal debut. Yes, her first start of the year was the Derby. And in winning it, she transformed the race, in the words of Col. Matt Winn, into an American institution.
Nevertheless, not too very long ago, a late start on the road to Kentucky would have seemed an insurmountable disadvantage. From 1994 through 2003, seven Derby winners made their seasonal debut in January. Thunder Gulch was the latest to get his campaign started, on Feb. 18; but he had won the Remsen and finished second in the Hollywood Futurity (now the CashCall) to close out his juvenile campaign, and so he already sat atop a broad foundation of conditioning and experience. In the year of their roseate victories, those 10 winners from 1994 through 2003 made 38 total starts prior to the Derby, and not one of them had fewer than three preparatory outings.
But the run-up has changed dramatically. Of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners, four made their seasonal debut in March, and only three in January. In the year of their roseate victories, the last 10 winners of most famous of races had 25 total starts, and five horses had only two preparatory outings.
Year, Kentucky Derby winner: Date of Seasonal Debut
2013, Orb: January 26
2012, I'll Have Another: February 4
2011, Animal Kingdom: March 3
2010, Super Saver: March 13
2009, Mine That Bird: February 28
2008, Big Brown: March 5
2007, Street Sense: March 17
2006, Barbaro: January 1
2005, Giacomo: February 5
2004, Smarty Jones: January 3
A March start to a Triple Crown campaign is no longer unusual. And so even with their late starts, Honor Code and Shared Belief can get to the Triple Crown, even if somewhat tardily. Their talents are conspicuous. They both raced with success around two turns as juveniles and they raced late in the year; so they probably had retained a high level of conditioning before their contretemps. And, most important, they're in excellent hands. Generally regarded as two of the finest horsemen in the country, McGaughey and Hollendorfer are both members of the sport's Hall of Fame.
And so is time running out? Well, that's the one thing time can be relied upon to do. But minor injuries haven't bumped Honor Code and Shared Belief off the Triple Crown trail, not yet and not quite and perhaps not at all. And if asked to look far down the future's corridor and into the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, from here, the horse draped in roses still looks like Honor Code.