Trends: Fact Or Fiction?

by Ed Meyer

posted on March 26, 2009 in General Discussion, Kentucky Derby, Other Events | No Comments >>

In 2006, Barbaro proved it was possible to stave off rust for five full weeks.

The following year, Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby after just two practice sessions.

And last season, Big Brown showed three starts were all he needed to gain the experience necessary to dominate Thoroughbred racing’s marquee day.

The last three runnings of the Derby have all seen long-running historical trends go by the wayside.

And if trainer Todd Pletcher has his way, the 2009 Derby will put another hard and fast precedent into the trash compactor.

The Pletcher-trained Dunkirk, one of the most inexperienced participants slated to run in Saturday’s Grade I Florida Derby (and one of the most talked about), is expected to be among the favorites for the 1 1?8-mile race.

Dunkirk has two career starts and didn’t race as a 2-year-old — something no Kentucky Derby winner has done since Apollo in 1882.

A $3.7 million sale topper at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling auction, Dunkirk is trying to make the Kentucky Derby field with a win in the Florida Derby.

Pletcher is aware of the task he is asking Dunkirk to pull off. He watched Big Brown become the first Derby winner since 1915 with only three previous starts; Street Sense become the first since 1983 to win off just two 3-year-old prep races; and Barbaro become the first in 50 years to wear the roses off a five-week layoff.

“I’ve been saying for years these trends are going to change,” Pletcher said Tuesday. “People just aren’t running their horses as frequently at this high a level as they did 15 to 20 years ago.”

“I thought things like this would come up where … more lightly raced horses would do well. I think what Big Brown did was prove a theory people already had and make some skeptics second guess their original theories.”

As was the case with Big Brown last year before his Florida Derby romp, Dunkirk comes into the race with more hype than substance on his résumé.

The Coolmore-owned son of Unbridled’s Song has only a maiden and an allowance win to his credit but — like Big Brown — he also has displayed brilliance each time out.

In his first career outing on Jan. 24th at Gulfstream, the gray colt overcame a sluggish start to romp by 5 3/4 lengths over seven furlongs.

Next time out, going 1 1?8 miles, Dunkirk was forced extremely wide on the first turn, but still kicked on with ease for a 4 3/4-length triumph.

“One thing about his first start is he got the education of what I consider to be three races,” Pletcher said. “He didn’t get away great, he got dirt in his face, he moved out from traffic and pulled away from horses.”

“The fact he got a lot of education in his first start helps his situation moving forward not just in the Florida Derby but beyond that.”

Although Big Brown and company have made an assault on the record books in recent years, not everyone is convinced trainers should get too far away from the tried and true trends that have typically produced Derby winners.

Pletcher said Europe, a maiden who was purchased by Coolmore for $2.6 million at the 2007 Keeneland September sale, might be entered as a rabbit for Dunkirk in the Florida Derby to possibly press Fountain of Youth Stakes winner Quality Road.

“I’m going to see how it shapes up and make a decision tomorrow,” Pletcher said. “I don’t want to see a horse of that caliber loose on the lead with slow fractions.”

Jimmy Jerkens, trainer of Quality Road, said he has never run a rabbit in such a big race but would consider it “if it was the same (owners) and they didn’t mind sacrificing a horse for that.”