Top Billing cracked a cannon bone during a routine workout, Indianapolis became ill, Shared Belief had a persistent foot problem, Honor Code injured a suspensory ligament and they've all left the highway. Are this season's 3-year-olds more fragile than past groups, or could it be that the road to this year's Kentucky Derby has more potholes than usual?
Or has the Derby road simply attracted more traffic than ever?
If the Derby road seems more hazardous than most boulevards, it's probably because the spotlight of widespread interest and media attention shines relentlessly on it. Each setback, every injury, is cataloged.
"I believe the attrition rate [on the Derby road] is magnified because everybody knows who these horses are," said Todd Pletcher, who this weekend will send out Intense Holiday in the Louisiana Derby and Constitution in the Florida Derby, "and everybody is following them."
I believe the attrition rate is magnified because everybody knows who these horses are.
"-- trainer Todd Pletcher
Actually, the road leading to the 140th Kentucky Derby is no more hazardous than those that led to past Derbies, and probably no more precarious than the run-up to many rigorous sporting enterprises. Injuries accompany any athletic endeavor, either as a haunting possibility or a compromising burden. ESPN's astute baseball writer Buster Olney recently pointed out that it "seems like 30 percent of the starting pitchers in the American League West" have been injured already, and the MLB season hasn't even begun.
And 30 percent of the top 10 horses in ESPN.com's initial Derby Power Rankings already have left the Derby road. But that's not uncommon. Last year, four of the initial top 10 didn't make their way to Churchill Downs for the Derby. Unbeaten after a five-length romp in the Holy Bull Stakes, Algorithms seemed to be the rising star two years ago. To ride him in the Fountain of Youth, Javier Castellano gave up the mount on Union Rags. But the week of the race, Algorithms fractured a splint bone.
In 2009, having followed his Gotham romp with a victory in the Wood Memorial, I Want Revenge was the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby. The morning of the race, his trainer, Jeff Mullins, detected a hot spot on a tender ankle. And I Want Revenge became the Derby's first morning-line favorite to be scratched the day of the race. But not the first contender: A.P. Indy was scratched Derby Day of 1992 and Buddha on Derby Day of 2002.
Having won the Fountain of Youth by more than eight lengths and the Wood by nearly 10, Eskendereya arrived in Kentucky in 2010 with the reputation of a Godzilla. But because of a tendon problem, he wasn't entered in the Derby. Quality Road, Fed Biz, Violence, Shanghai Bobby, Flashback, Old Fashioned, Buddy's Saint, To Honor And Serve, Uncle Mo, Super Ninety Nine, Corinthian and Tiz Wonderful -- they all looked like Kentucky Derby contenders for a while, a long while in some cases, but none ran in the Derby.
Knowing that a horse can become ill or hurt in an instant, Pletcher said he holds his breath when he arrives at the track every morning. A trainer may not be able to prevent an injury, but Pletcher said it's his responsibility to minimize them and their effects.
"It's very difficult when you have a horse who has the talent for the Derby and, of course, for your clients you want him to get there, and it's so difficult for everybody when a horse is injured," Pletcher said. "But you have to minimize the injury and remember there are many big races later in the year."
For a racehorse and his connections, missing the Derby because of an injury will always be more momentous than a typical sporting setback simply because there is a single opportunity, a speck of a moment really, to reach for the roses. In baseball or football, there's always the next game; in golf there's always the next tournament; or there's even next year. But the Derby doesn't permit mulligans or second chances.
That's why the some of the greatest of Derbies will always be those that might have been. The 1966 Derby, for example, was expected to be the occasion for the first meeting of two of the sport's most exciting and charismatic stars, Buckpasser and Graustark. But on May 7, neither entered the starting gate. Although he would win 13 of his 14 starts at 3, Buckpasser missed the Triple Crown series because of a quarter crack, or cracked hoof. And Graustark was retired after the Blue Grass, where he fractured a coffin bone while finishing second, by a nose, in his only loss.
Risk has always accompanied the travelers on the road to the Derby. But traffic has increased greatly in recent years. About twice as many horses are nominated than, say, 40 years ago. Everybody, it seems, wants to run his horse in the Derby. And so every Derby since 2004 has attracted at least 20 entrants -- the field, of course, is limited to 20.
The Kentucky Derby is America's flagship race. It's the one race people everywhere connect with, and I don't think that's going to change.
"-- trainer Todd Pletcher
"The Kentucky Derby is America's flagship race," Pletcher said. "It's the one race people everywhere connect with, and I don't think that's going to change."
The Kentucky Derby has the power to intrude on popular culture; it's the only race that America pauses to watch. But does the Kentucky Derby cause myopia, does its allure mesmerize and has it become too irresistible? It wasn't always so.
Samuel Riddle believed that May was too early to test a 3-year-old at 1¼ miles. And so in 1920, Riddle's Man o' War was aimed not at the Kentucky Derby but at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. By 1937, of course, when his War Admiral was a 3-year-old, Riddle revised his thinking.
The great John Nerud also believed the Kentucky Derby wasn't for everybody. It's "too early in the season," he said last year in an interview with The New York Times. Even worse, Nerud said, just trying to get to the Derby ruins many horses.
And so in his long career, the Hall of Fame trainer saddled just one horse in the Kentucky Derby, Gallant Man, who famously ran second in 1957. But for the most part, Nerud forswore pursuing the roses. In 1967, he even went so far as to make up stories about Dr. Fager's ailments and minor setbacks just so the media wouldn't annoy him with Kentucky Derby questions, according to Steve Haskin's biography of the great horse.
A year later, Dr. Fager would become the champion sprinter, champion older horse, champion turf horse, and Horse of the Year. But in 1967, he wasn't a Derby horse. In 1967, Nerud had an eye not on the Derby, but on those races later in the year and perhaps the next.
Attrition will no doubt force some owners and trainers to look, as Nerud did 47 years ago, down the road. Even if the sport is myopic, horsemen shouldn't be.