The Long Road From Foal To Kentucky Derby

Los Angeles Times

The math makes no sense.

You start with about 22,300 foals in 2014. Figure about half of them are colts, so you're down to 11,000.

Of those, the field gets cut some more at the start of their third year, when you have to pay $600 to nominate your colt — or sometimes filly — to be eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby. This year there were 418 nominations: 378 colts, 30 geldings, five ridglings and five fillies.

That puts it at 1.9 percent of the 2014 foals being eligible for what is almost every horse owner's dream.

Then, cut it to a minimum of 18 horses — automatic berths are given to the winner of the Hyacinth Stakes in Japan and the UAE Derby in Dubai — and you have the pool down to 0.08 percent.

You would have to be a fool to play such odds. Right?

Trainer Doug O'Neill, who has won the Derby twice in the last five years, nominated 21 horses. He's down to one.

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won one Derby, nominated 33 horses. He qualified five, but scratched two of them this week.

Trainer John Shirreffs, who has won one Derby, nominated two, and has one in the race and one on the bubble.

Trainer Bob Baffert, who has won four Kentucky Derbies and the Triple Crown, nominated 21 horses and has no qualifiers.

Go figure.

"It is such a huge challenge," O'Neill said. "The numbers really go against you. What helps us is having guys like [owners] Paul [Reddam] and Kaleem Shah, who are willing to go to auctions and spend money for top prospects. But there are no guarantees."

O'Neill started with 50 horses, 40 of them bought at sales. Most of the others were bred by Reddam, O'Neill's most engaged owner.

"There were six or seven who I thought really had a chance," O'Neill said.

Reddam bought Dog Gone Lenny for $490,000. The colt has one second in three starts. O'Neill said he just didn't develop fast enough.

W.C. Racing and Zayat Stables bought Dangerfield for $450,000. In seven starts, he has one win, one second and two thirds. He came out of a race body sore and O'Neill has him pointed to the second half of the year.

One sure thing is money does not guarantee a winner.

California Chrome, considered a lowly Cal-bred, and I'll Have Another, bought for $16,000, both won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But they also gave hope to the non-big-bucks owners that they don't have to spend a lot of money to win racing's biggest prize.

"It probably gave most of us in the business the realization that it doesn't matter if you paid $1 million for a horse," O'Neill said. "It's what they have in their heart and their competitive juices that count. If you can keep them injury-free while winning the preps, crazy things can happen."

It's that craziness that has O'Neill and Reddam here this week. They decided to send winless Irap to Keeneland.

"He has shown he was a top-notch horse," O'Neill said. "But he couldn't break through. We were so disappointed after the Sunland Derby [where he finished fourth] but he was full of energy after the race."

He won his next race, the Bluegrass Stakes, at odds of 31-1. Now he's in the Derby.

Shirreffs' success rate this year will get him into any hall of fame. He has Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley, and Royal Mo is waiting for one horse to scratch to make him eligible.

"I had just five colts," Shirreffs said. "This was a very good year. Obviously, you just have to get really lucky and have a nice 2-year-old that can develop early."

Pletcher will be running Always Dreaming, Tapwrit and Patch.

"There are no second chances," Pletcher said. "We have a great client base that provides us with some promising athletes. But a number of things have to go right in order to get there.

"I thought we had a really good winter and spring, and we were able to pick out the right spots for some of them. We try and strategize the right moves. Who goes to Tampa? Who goes to the Florida Derby? Those type of things."

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
43°