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No Good Losses on the Kentucky Derby Trail

by Jeremy Plonk

March 25, 2019

I’ve never met a loss that I’d take over a win. In anything. Losses are like One Direction songs. They’re all just different degrees of bad. 

So while admitting defeat on the Triple Crown trail may not be the end of the world, much less the end of the line, be clear that no one involved walks away brimming with satisfaction. There are a thousand ways or more to lose a horse race. We saw another one of them Saturday. 

The ninth-place finish by War of Will in the Louisiana Derby may be explained easily when his back end came out from under him a few strides from the gate. But it can’t be explained away as easily; he came out of the race with soreness. Explaining away losses is a forgiving trait that makes handicappers sometimes find prices and retribution, but also can lead you down a dead end twice. Fool me once, as they say … 

We don’t expect perfection in our racehorses. That’s left for Winx if you’re able to stay up beyond midnight. But the Kentucky Derby sure hasn’t been keen on singular losses, much less chronic losers. I’ve written many times in this space and others that the last Kentucky Derby winner to lose a race at age 3 was Animal Kingdom in 2012. That’s 6 straight unbeaten Derby winners on the trail since then. And note that Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another before him both won their final preps. That means it’s only Super Saver’s 2010 Arkansas Derby in the L column leading into the first Saturday in May this decade. 

Such are reasons why every loss is scrutinized, and likely over-scrutinized, on the Triple Crown trail. Even if you think such a trend is worthless, which it could be, it doesn’t change your job of trying to explain away losses and forgive the right ones. That’s the fundamental point here today. 

The gamut of excuses for name players (and heavy favorites) this season on the sophomore trail have run the usual and unusual. Code of Honor missed time into and out of the Breeders’ Cup and was a short horse misplaced in the Mucho Man Stakes. Coliseum couldn’t handle two turns in the Sham. Hidden Scroll got chewed up in the pace of the Fountain of Youth trying to spar with a sprinter; same goes for Instagrand in the Gotham, with the additional caveat of probably needing the race off the layoff. Improbable and Game Winner both suffered wide trips upon their Rebel reappearances after training-time set-backs in Southern California. Mucho Gusto also had the weather and track issues while just running out of steam in the Sunland Derby stretch. And, of course, the world literally came out from under War of Will at Fair Grounds this past weekend. 

Most all of those excuses for losing would be enough to at least consider a horse back next time on an everyday card at the right price. But the Derby trail is different for two reasons: one, the next race is always tougher; two, the calendar is fixed. Necessary adjustments or improvements must be completed in a specific timeframe at the schedule’s discretion, not the horse or trainer’s. 

The funny thing about excusing a loss is that there’s only really one way to correct the outcome: Win. And so while someone will tell you winning isn’t everything and that it’s a process, that’s only true to an extent. At some point, and in the Triple Crown’s case very soon, you have to be able to complete the process better than the rest. 

Great horses need to overcome wide trips by having the gears to get in and out of positions, or simply overwhelm the competition in preps because you can give away 30-40 feet and still prove best. Great horses need to relax and let fast paces run off without them, because a 20-horse Derby or any Triple Crown race in front of a massive crowd won’t get any less mentally taxing. In terms of the excuses, or reasons for losing, those are probably my least forgiving in the Triple Crown context. They are excellent handicapping angles on any Thursday, however, when the next race is often equal or less in quality to the last, and you get to pick the spot in which you’re about to re-fire. And even great horses need to stay healthy, because the rarity in which a Derby winner has overcome physical issues at age 3 is about as uncommon as it gets now that the Apollo curse has been slayed. 

The Southern California training issues may be more forgivable because they weren’t any fault of the horses themselves. And strictly speaking in terms of the calendar, they were a short-term problem being ready for March, but allow enough time moving forward with 5-6 good weeks of training before the first Saturday in May. It’s also fair to say that most of the Baffert runners stayed pretty close to on schedule, however, throughout the ordeal. But when he runs second, second and third with a trio of odds-on favorites at Oaklawn and Sunland, all horses most had as Top 5 or Top-10 level prospects, there’s fair concern. One of those (Game Winner) was beaten by a fellow Santa Anita trainee, Omaha Beach, after all. So it all can’t be laid on the training situation. 

All that said, I’m not wild about any of the recent losses of leading Triple Crown prospects. I do like what Bill Mott has done in the morning with Hidden Scroll, teaching him to rate, and that could pay off in this week’s Xpressbet Florida Derby. But as mentioned before, forgiveness has a very short expiration date in this process. These horses need immediate improvements. 

And if you’re hung up on being undefeated at 3, that list of prospects typically shrinks to about 2-4 by Derby Day. There’s not many of those left this year even by the final week of March. Horses like Haikal, Tacitus, Somelikeithotbrown, Tax, Harvey Wallbanger and Maximum Security are among the names still unblemished in 2019. Do you want them, or are you willing to forgive someone else?