When embarking on the Kentucky Derby trail, remember, it is about the journey more than the destination. Sure, everyone would love to discover that pearl in the oyster early in the year and see it pay off with a victory on the first Saturday in May. But the odds are against that happening, so it is important to make sure you have fun along the way.
There are so many variables when looking for a Derby horse, even more so now, because training methods have changed drastically and the old rules no longer apply, at least not as much as they used to. It used to be that you wanted a horse who was a proven 2-year-old, was battle-tested at 3, and not babied leading up to the Derby. But, now, horses are coming out of the woodwork even as late as March. No one even heard of Big Brown until he won an off-the-turf allowance race on March 5 in only the second start of the year. Two races later he wins the Kentucky Derby from post 20 and then romps in the Preakness.
So, you can scrutinize over the top 3-year-olds all you want in January and February as long as you realize that the Derby winner might not even be a blip on the radar screen at that point.
There are three basic categories in finding a Derby horse – his race record, his pedigree, and his physicality. Is he fast enough? If not, does he have the potential to get faster? Does he have a pedigree that will carry him a mile and a quarter? You can accept the sire being basically a miler type if there is a strong tail-female family to help get him that extra furlong or two. Does he have the look of a classic horse (longer body and everything equally distributed) as compared to a sprinter’s look (heavily muscled and stockier)?
Here is what you look for at each stage. If you see a horse break his maiden impressively, and he appears to meet all the requirements of a Derby horse, be careful you don’t get too excited over him, because you really don’t know who he was beating. Most impressive maiden winners don’t duplicate that effort against winners. Watch how the horses he defeated perform in their next start. Watch how he works coming out of that race and up to his next race. And most important, observe how he won. Did he go right to the front and open a big lead? Even if he won by a large margin, remember that many horses get brave out on the lead all by them themselves without being challenged. Then when they are challenged by better horses they can’t handle the pressure.
I prefer seeing a horse come from off the pace and display a good turn of foot, which means the ability to accelerate quickly, and I want to see him close strongly as if he wants to keep going. Watch the jockey and see if he’s sitting relatively still on the horse and hand-riding him or if he’s whipping him and pushing him for all he’s worth. You want to see a horse who knows what he’s supposed to do and does it without excessive urging. In short, you want to see the horse exhibit class and professionalism, which entails running a straight course and changing leads when he’s supposed to (just as he straightens into the stretch).
If a horse runs greenly and still wins impressively, it shows he has the ability to overcome his greenness, and he can be excused. But if it becomes a habit, then be leery, because green horses don’t win the Kentucky Derby.
You also want to see agility (which a horse will often need to get himself out of trouble in a 20-horse Derby field) and toughness (to handle the traffic and bumping that could often occurs in the Derby).
Finally, and this is the most important factor, make sure your horse keeps showing steady improvement with each race. You don’t want to see him regress and you don’t want to see him run such a spectacular race early that it could indicate he peaked too soon. You want them peaking on the first Saturday in May, not in February or March, or even April. It’s all about having the best and luckiest horse on that one day. If a horse should turn in a monster performance early in the year, as Eskendereya did in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, then you don’t mind seeing him regress a little in his next start. That regression will allow him to regroup and start moving forward again. Two monster performances leading up to the Derby most likely will spell disaster, because the vast majority of young horses cannot put three of those types of performances together. There has to be a regression somewhere, and you sure don’t want it coming in the Derby.
So, pick your horse or horses wisely and carefully and have fun following them through the winter and spring. And if any of them should drop off the Derby trail, as most do, don’t worry; there’s always another one right around the corner.