LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Until recently, Kentucky Derby winners had to fit certain strict criteria. They ran during the previous four weeks and had made at least four career starts. Starting in 1985, you tossed out the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (jinx race). And you never considered a horse that didn’t run as a 2-year-old. Only fools broke the Derby rules.
Ah, now all history is so past tense. In the past three years, Barbaro, Street Sense and Big Brown dominated by challenging tradition. Barbaro triumphed after a five-week layoff, which hadn’t been done since 1956. Street Sense finally pulled off the Juvenile-Derby double. Big Brown got the roses in his fourth lifetime start, which hadn’t happened since 1915.
At age 41, four-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher is a lock for the Hall of Fame, but no trainer living or dead has a worse Derby record (0 for 21). On Saturday, he will saddle long shots Advice and Join In The Dance and the highly regarded Dunkirk, a $3.7-million yearling whom Pletcher calls “the best chance we’ve ever had in the Derby.”
Besides Pletcher’s Derby drought, Dunkirk didn’t make his debut until Jan. 24, and not since Apollo in 1882 has there been a Derby winner without 2-year-old experience.
“It’s a lot of history to overcome,” Pletcher said. “But we’ve seen a lot of historical trends change in the last few years, so we’re hoping this will be another one to follow suit.
“I don’t see Dunkirk being green at all. He’s been very professional in all three of his starts. He’s had a lot of traffic and dirt in his face and has been inside, outside and behind horses. So I don’t think greenness is an issue. He’s very well educated for a lightly raced horse.”
Let’s see, a trainer who’s 0 for 21 bucking 127 years of evidence that experience is crucial in a roughly run race. Well, sometimes logic is just a pathetic defense mechanism in a chaotic universe. So yeah, I’m going to try to hit my third consecutive Derby winner with Dunkirk. He has the speed figures and finishing kick to get the job done, and his running style and pedigree say 11/4 miles will be no problem. His four consecutive bullet workouts at deep, tiring Payson Park in Florida indicate he’s sharp.
The most “logical” winner, if logic and the Derby can be used in the same sentence, is morning-line favorite I Want Revenge, who has trained brilliantly at Churchill Downs. IEAH Stables co-president Michael Iavarone, co-owner of I Want Revenge, hopes Dunkirk won’t duplicate what IEAH’s Big Brown did.
“Dunkirk is very talented, but Big Brown did something that hadn’t been done in 93 years,” Iavarone said. “What are the chances it will happen two years in a row?”
Those odds are long, and I won’t be surprised if I’m writing the annual “Pletcher’s Derby schneid continues” sidebar on Saturday night. But sooner or later Pletcher’s pain will end, and maybe his time has come.
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