Can Kentucky Derby Contender Verrazano Break the Oldest Curse in Sports?

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May 2 2013 2:24 PM

The Oldest Curse in Sports

Can Verrazano break the Kentucky Derby’s Curse of Apollo?

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“I still think it is relevant,” says Beyer, who expects Verrazano to end up as a “tepid” favorite at 4-1 or 5-1. “It is valuable for a horse to have a foundation of experience as a 2-year-old—in the racetrack terminology, it’s called ‘bottom’—as opposed to having to cram all his preparation into a short period of time. Verrazano has had a cram course, having four races since Jan. 1.” Beyer says he won’t bet Verrazano to win but will use him in exactas and trifectas: “I wouldn’t say that the Jan. 1 thing disqualifies him, but it’s a negative.”

Davidowitz, by contrast, says the curse is just one of those windbag railbird aphorisms on the order of never betting a horse who hasn’t raced in the past 15 days. He notes that Fusaichi Pegasus, the 2000 Derby winner, ran his first race in December 1999. It’s hard to imagine the outcome of the Kentucky Derby would’ve been any different if he’d run his maiden race a few days later, after the Curse of Apollo cutoff.

Besides Bodemeister, only two recent cursed horses have finished in the money at the Derby: Strodes Creek, who placed in 1994, and Curlin, who showed in 2007. Curlin, who went on to win the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was the best horse of his generation but did not start racing until February of his 3-year-old year—on Derby day, he was still a race short of running like a champion.

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There’s never been a more likely candidate to break the curse than Verrazano. Unlike Bodemeister, he’s got the racing savvy of a cagey veteran: In the Wood, he bided his time behind a slow pacesetter, then held off Vyjack in the stretch, breaking that rival’s will to run. Changes in breeding and training have also made experience less important for Derby contenders. Over 138 runnings, the average winner has started seven times before the big race. But today’s thoroughbred, bred for speed at the expense of stamina, is less durable than his ancestors. Trainers know this and space races more widely. In 2008, Big Brown won off just three career starts. Many of this year’s contenders have run only five races—just one more than Verrazano.*

“I think you’re seeing a lot more horses like the Curlins, Bodemeisters, and horses that are lightly raced come out of nowhere and make more noise during the Classics,” Sullivan told the San Diego Union-Tribune in March. “I think it’s just a matter of time before one of these unraced two-year-olds probably breaks that jinx of Apollo.”

The real Curse of Apollo may be the pressure to rush young Derby prospects to the track. An Australian study found nothing harmful about racing 2-year-old horses, as long as they’re mature enough. But in the United States, Derby qualifying races are run in late winter and early spring, denying juveniles a rejuvenating three-month break between seasons. It’s a fait accompli that the Derby winner will retire young, because he’s more valuable as a stud than a racehorse.

But the Triple Crown doesn’t just burn out champions—it ends the careers of dozens of also-rans before what should be their prime racing years. Union Rags, who won last year’s Belmont Stakes, is already retired with a ligament injury. Hansen, who finished ninth in last year’s Derby, tore a tendon, finishing him as a racehorse. In this century, the only Breeders’ Cup Classic winner to have run in the Kentucky Derby was Curlin. Unless the Derby is moved to summer or opened to older horses—as Slate has suggested—it’s going to shorten careers. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas won four Kentucky Derbies but also inspired this racetrack joke: “Do you know what the characteristics of a D. Wayne Lukas 4-year-old are? Neither does Wayne.”

“There’s no doubt running a 2-year-old gives you invaluable experience,” Sullivan says. “Can it work against you later? Absolutely.”

No matter how fast Verrazano runs on Saturday, he’s not going to break that curse.

Correction, May 6, 2013: This article originally misstated that many of this year’s Kentucky Derby entrants have run only four races. Though several contenders have five career starts, Verrazano is the only horse in the field who’s run just four times. (Return to the corrected sentence.)