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Kentucky Derby fashions change, but a few truths remain

Winning the Kentucky Derby is a bit like parenting: Today’s wisdom could become tomorrow’s bilge. Approaches deemed best can change as quickly as hairstyles, or having been dismissed, they can soon return, like retro-fashion.

And so an outstanding group of 3-year-olds will converge on Friday’s Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park. With Break Water Edison, Hello Broadway and Capt. Candyman Can in the field, Friday’s Hutcheson looks very unlike recent editions.

Since it’s run over seven furlongs, the Hutcheson has been in recent years primarily for sprinter types and not necessarily for serious Triple Crown contenders. Not since Swale in 1984 has a Hutcheson winner gone on to take the Kentucky Derby.

But not too long ago, starting a long campaign with a sprint seemed prudent. In the 1970s, Spectacular Bid and Dust Commander both began in the Hutcheson, and both, of course, won at Churchill Downs. Also in the 1970s, Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all began their 3-year-old campaigns in a sprint.

That approach, however, has become less and less popular. Monarchos, in 2001, was the last Kentucky Derby winner whose first appearance of the year came in a sprint. But if one of today’s Hutcheson horses goes on to roseate success, look for many of next year’s hopefuls to begin similarly.

Recent Derby winners have exploded many of the assumptions about what’s necessary to win a Triple Crown race. It was thought, for example, that a horse had to have won as a 2-year-old, that he had to have a broad foundation of experience, but then Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos went from their maiden victories to the Derby in four months. It was thought a horse’s talent had to be steeled by recent competition and by at least three preps, but then there was Big Brown.

Anyway, having tossed most assumptions aside, I’m left with three nuggets of wisdom, provided by three trainers – D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito – who know as well as anybody how to win the Kentucky Derby. They’ve won a total of nine.

“You have to hit the moment just right,” Zito told me years ago. It’s all about giving a peak performance on the first Saturday in May; everything else is prelude. The best horse in February, March or April won’t necessarily win the Kentucky Derby, just as the best football team in October won’t necessarily win the Super Bowl.

And a trainer who just wants to get his horse to the Kentucky Derby probably won’t win it, Lukas once explained. The difference between getting there and getting there with a real chance to win can be vast. Having a seat at the table doesn’t mean you’re going to feast.

One morning a few years ago, amid talk about what’s necessary to win the Kentucky Derby, what’s the best road to travel and how the multitude of variables play out, Baffert once reduced everything to this essential truth: “You have to have the horse.”

Yes, prepare to win, not just participate, hit the moment just right and have the horse. And so with Friday’s Hutcheson and Saturday’s Holy Bull and all the upcoming stakes on this year’s road to the Triple Crown, the search continues to find the horse.

The Holy Bull

Beethoven, who completed his juvenile campaign with a victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, will make his seasonal debut Saturday at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull Stakes. Also among those entered are West Wide Bernie, Danger To Society, Nowhere To Hide, Idol Maker, Saratoga Sinner and Rockland.

Nicanor, Barbaro’s highly regarded brother, makes his debut Saturday at Gulfsteam. And Well Positioned, another Triple Crown possibility, will begin his campaign Saturday.


Old Fashioned, the unbeaten colt who won the Remsen and is one of the early favorites for the Triple Crown, worked five furlongs Thursday in 58.80 seconds at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He’ll make his first start of the year in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn.

Also in preparation for the Southwest, Silver City worked a half-mile in 47.80. And Indygo Mountain worked five furlongs in a minute in preparation for the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 7 at Fair Grounds.