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

The stadium scene.
May 2 2013 2:24 PM

The Oldest Curse in Sports

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

Kentucky Derby hopeful Verrazano gallops on the track with exercise rider Humberto Zamora during early morning workouts at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, May 1, 2013.
Verrazano gallops on the track with exercise rider Humberto Zamora during early morning workouts at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on May 1, 2013.

Photo by John Sommers II/Reuters

In that wet spring of 1882, Runnymede was the fastest 3-year-old in America. The Kentucky Derby was only in its eighth year and not yet a substantial draw on the American horse-racing circuit. As such, Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., the mustachioed booster who had conceived the race as an equine Mardi Gras that would make Louisville, Ky., the equal of any river city, had to beg the colt’s owners to ship their prize possession west. Runnymede’s owners, the New York meatpacking millionaires the Dwyer brothers, loved to gamble, so they agreed on the condition that they could also ship in their own Manhattan bookmakers. Clark had imported pari-mutuel betting machines from France, just to keep crooked bookies away from his track. But if Clark had to tolerate bookies to get Runnymede, he would tolerate bookies.

On a rainy Derby day, the bookmakers made Runnymede the 4-5 favorite. He ran like a favorite for most of the race, twice escaping from behind running roadblocks of horses, and making up six lengths in the stretch. With 400 yards to go in the mile-and-a-half race, Runnymede took the lead. But behind him, daredevil African-American jockey Babe Hurd—black riders were actually fairly common in the post-bellum South—was weaving his mount, Apollo, between tiring horses. Two hundred yards from the wire, Apollo drew nose-to-nose with Runnymede, then dug through the mud to win by half a body length.

Accounts of the race have the bookies offering Apollo at anywhere from 10-1 to 82-1. He wasn’t considered a contender because he hadn’t started racing until a few months earlier, winning purses in Little Rock, Ark.; Memphis, Tenn.; and New Orleans. So unexpected was a rookie horse’s victory that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote of Apollo, “He was hardly thought of before the race and was given but very scanty attention by the betting ring.”

Apollo and Runnymede raced again six days after the Derby. This time, Runnymede won by 10 lengths. Six years later, a Pittsburgh gambler named Capt. Sam Brown claimed the race had been fixed to spare bookmakers from making ruinous payouts on the popular Runnymede—exactly what Clark had feared. But whether he did it honestly or not, Apollo achieved a feat that has never been repeated: Since 1882, every horse that has won the Kentucky Derby started its racing career as a 2-year-old. In the past 57 years, 49 horses that debuted as 3-year-olds have tried and failed to win at Churchill Downs. It’s known as the Curse of Apollo, and it’s the oldest curse in American sports, predating the Curse of the Billy Goat—the Chicago Cubs’ pennant drought—by 63 years. (It also predates the Cubs’ World Series drought by 26 years, but who’s counting?)

Late last fall, the curse was on owner Bryan Sullivan’s mind. As a 2-year-old, his promising colt Verrazano had suffered shin problems that delayed his debut at the track. By the first week of December, though, Verrazano was training well, and Sullivan sat down with trainer Todd Pletcher to discuss the horse’s maiden race. At first, they considered a six-furlong sprint, scheduled for Dec. 19. But Pletcher thought Verrazano needed more practice bursting from the starting gate, and since he had only four months to build up to a mile-and-a-quarter—a tight schedule for a Derby horse—Pletcher wanted him to start at seven furlongs (seven-eighths of a mile).

“OK, but there’s no more races until the first week of January,” Sullivan said. “I just want to mention that to you. You know what everybody’s going to say.”

“Is 24 hours really going to make a difference?” Sullivan says Pletcher asked him.

Although thoroughbreds are foaled in late winter and early spring, their birthdays are observed on Jan. 1. As a consequence, when Verrazano stepped into the gate on New Year’s Day at Gulfstream Park, he was a 3-year-old. Verrazano won his maiden race (which turned out to be 6 ½ furlongs). Then he won at a mile, by such a wide margin that the race caller crowed, “He’s gonna win this one from Brooklyn to Staten Island.” Then he won the Tampa Bay Derby. And then Aqueduct Racetrack’s Wood Memorial, whose champions have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby 11 times. The Churchill Downs oddsmaker now lists him at 4-1 on the morning line, meaning he could be the second straight cursed horse to go off as the favorite.

Last year’s favorite, Bodemeister, went out so fast he couldn’t hold off I’ll Have Another in the stretch—a rookie mistake compounded by a rookie's inability to go the distance. Is that confirmation that the curse is real? Would Bodemeister have won the Derby had he not been so green?

You can’t get two handicappers to agree on anything. If you could, there’d be no point to playing the horses—every winner would pay $2.10. Andrew Beyer is the Washington Post columnist who used his Harvard English degree to revolutionize handicapping by inventing the Beyer Speed Figure. Steve Davidowitz, author of Betting Thoroughbreds and editor of GradeOneRacing.com, has been Beyer’s racetrack buddy ever since they met in the paddock at Saratoga in the 1970s. Beyer thinks the Curse of Apollo is real—he believes that horses who don’t start racing until January lack the preparation time of peers who began the previous summer or fall. Davidowitz thinks that’s booshwah.

“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.

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.)

Edward McClelland is the author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track. Follow him on Twitter.

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