Commentary

What's in a date?

A colt's actual foal date may give a clue as to how he might run in May

Updated: February 26, 2014, 3:25 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

The birthday of Tapiture and Bayern also happens to be Derby Day, May 3. No need, though, to get out the kazoos and candles for a party; there could be celebration enough if either run for the famed roses.

And should either be successful in the Derby, his victory would be, at the very least, unusual. Among the winners whose actual foal dates are known, none won the Kentucky Derby on his birthday. The day after winning the 1965 Kentucky Derby on May 1, Lucky Debonair actually turned 3. And over the past 70 years, only seven Derby winners were foaled, or born, in May. (The exact foal dates for Proud Clarion, Tomy Lee and Middleground are unknown.)

Trainers insist that horses, like people, develop individually, with some maturing quickly and others, well, requiring extra time to realize their growth and learn what's expected of them. But when preparing a young horse for the Triple Crown, time is precious and extra time fanciful. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are entrenched on the calendar, and getting a horse there prepared and ready depends largely on development and progress. That's why a horse's foal date, or actual birthday, can be significant. It's not necessarily predictive, but it can explain much.

"At the start of the year, we think of all these horses as 3-year-olds," trainer Todd Pletcher explained, "but some of them might not actually be 3 for another two or three months. And 60 or 90 days can be very important in a young horse's development."

Was it coincidence that four of the past five horses to finish ahead of Intense Holiday, an April 20 foal, were all a couple of months older and therefore slightly more mature? Pletcher, who has always expressed confidence in the colt, said Intense Holiday made steady progress even while finishing third and fourth in his races. And Saturday, of course, in winning the Risen Star Stakes, he gave a "breakthrough" performance to join the leaders on the road to Kentucky.

Officially, of course, every racehorse's birthday is Jan. 1. (In the southern hemisphere, the official birthday is Aug. 1. Because southern hemisphere horses are typically foaled much later on the calendar, they generally don't attempt to race in the United States until they're older, maybe 4 or 5, and have had an opportunity to make up the discrepancy in maturity.) And so a horse that's foaled, or born, in, say, June would actually be only 7 months old when he officially became a yearling and 35 months old when he could run in the Kentucky Derby, or four months younger than a horse foaled in February. Is that a significant difference, four months? Well, no horse foaled in June ever has won the Kentucky Derby, or at least there's none among those winners whose foal dates are known.

Pletcher said that when buying young horses, he draws the line at May. In other words, he won't buy a June foal. And in a sales catalogue, he'll highlight all the May foaling dates to remind himself to make some concessions for these youngsters if they appear immature.

Similarly, trainer Steve Asmussen explained that even though horses develop at their own individual rates, he considers their foal dates as "part of the equation." A late foal date, he said, wouldn't discourage him from buying a young horse, but "it's definitely one of the factors" to consider.

"With Tapiture, we felt his foal date was always one of the reasons he was where he was," said Asmussen, who sent out the handsome chestnut colt to win the recent Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. "He was a little younger, but now he definitely seems to be catching up."

Even though he had flashed talent in his first three races as a juvenile, Tapiture didn't win for the first time until Nov. 30, in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. And his emphatic pronouncement in the Southwest, which he won by more than four lengths, represented another significant step forward for the colt, his trainer said.

Bayern didn't race as a 2-year-old because of sore shins, explained his trainer, Bob Baffert. Shin issues are common among 2-year-olds, of course; and Bayern didn't actually turn 2 until May. And so he's behind many in terms of experience. But, Baffert said, Bayern is a "very talented horse with a good foundation."

If Bayern, who's unbeaten in two outings with a 15-length romp in his most recent, celebrates his birthday in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, he'll be doubly unusual. Not since Apollo in 1882 has there been a Kentucky Derby winner who was unraced as a 2-year-old.

Most Kentucky Derby winners, or about 60 percent, are foaled in February and March. In fact, over the past 50 years, 14 Kentucky Derby winners were February foals and 17 were March foals. That's not surprising since most horses are indeed foaled in February and March.

Still, May foals have had success in the Triple Crown, roaring in some cases. War Admiral, who was foaled on May 2, swept the 1937 series, of course. Mine That Bird (May 10), Thunder Gulch (May 23), Spend A Buck (May 15), Cannonade (May 12), Lucky Debonair (May 2) and Northern Dancer (May 27) all became 3-year-olds, according to the calendar, after they won the Kentucky Derby. The latest known foal to win the Derby was Exterminator (May 30) in 1918.

A late foal date, then, doesn't necessarily dim a horse's Triple Crown prospects. More than anything, a late foal date might help explain why some horses that accomplished relatively little as juveniles could take huge strides forward in the next few months.

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