Kentucky Derby prep strategy is a sign of the times

Lexington, Ky.

Some things never change in sports. Or in covering sports. Or in covering anything.

Take news conferences with politicians and executives. The Breeders’ Cup threw one in the great outdoors of Tandy Park in downtown Lexington. It was staged just before the first Thursday Night Live of 2022 got cranked up – even if the temperature was not.

Amid the perfunctory decorations and speeches and swag, there always is a stated purpose at a news conference. This time it was to formally turn on the clock ticking down the last 30 weeks until the championships return to Keeneland – and to announce that attendance at the Breeders’ Cup will be limited to 45,000 a day.

RELATED: Cox may run Tawny Port in Lexington.

News conferences also come with the challenge for us media types to find another angle that no one else is taking. Two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox was on hand Thursday to provide it. Not about Knicks Go winning the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic or Mandaloun being awarded the Kentucky Derby.

In a side conversation Cox talked after the news conference about his 2022 Kentucky Derby contenders. What? He has contenders? He was reminded that just a few days ago, he had exactly zero horses in the qualifying standings. Suddenly, with CyberknifeZozos and Tawny Port, he has three.

“I felt like we had a good chance to have some horses get into the mix and pick up some points,” he said. “We were lucky enough to win one and have two seconds.”

Then with a laugh, Cox said something that provided the a-ha moment.

“I was definitely aware all winter that I didn’t have a horse with a point. For it to play out the way it did, I don’t like waiting that long.”

And there it is. Some things never change in sports. But when they do, they get noticed. Don’t blink, but the road to the Kentucky Derby has changed. It is a lot shorter than it once was, and there is a lot less room for error.

Nine years ago Churchill Downs decided that, instead of piling up money in graded stakes to get into the Derby, owners and horsemen should pile up points. The current Road to the Kentucky Derby was created, dozens of races were designated as Derby preps, and everything from the Iroquois to the Lexington had new cachet based on the arbitrary assignment of points.

It did not take too long for everyone to figure out there was no sense in rushing 2-year-olds into the Remsen (G2) or the Springboard Mile just to pick up some meaningless points. That has evolved to a current school of thinking that races like the Rebel (G2) and the Fountain of Youth (G2) are not musts anymore, either.

Cox’s strategy is lot like that of Bob Baffert. Remember him? The guy who almost exactly a year ago said on the eve of the last big preps, “You need to run first or second unless third was a troubled trip.” Of Baffert’s 34 Derby horses, 30 finished first, second or a troubled third in what are now 100-point preps. Those 30 included all six – or seven – of his Derby winners.

For better or worse, the wait-until-late strategy has become de rigueur. It was not just Baffert, and it is not just Cox. Of the 26 horses entered into the Wood (G2), the Blue Grass (G1) and the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on Saturday, only two – Forbidden Kingdom and Morello – already have earned enough points to be assured of having plans the evening of May 7.

More to the point, horses come to the Derby – or any race – with far fewer starts than they used to have. If Taiba were to get in through his stakes debut in the Santa Anita Derby, he would arrive at Churchill Downs with only two starts to his name. Two. And to think we were all four years ago, when Justify began and ended his career in less than four months.

Depending on how horse and standings look, Cox is weighing the possibility of squeezing Tawny Port into next Saturday’s climactic Lexington Stakes (G3) only two weeks after a second-place finish in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3). And only three weeks before the Derby.

“Look, horses used to run all the time back in two or three weeks,” Cox said. “Now we don’t see that. It’s kind of thinking totally out of the box.”

That is nothing. Go back 64 years to Tim Tam. He won the Kentucky Derby four days after he won the Derby Trial, making him the fifth and final horse to pull off that double. Two weeks later he won the Preakness. Three victories only 18 days apart. Are they really making horses any differently now?

“It’s kind of an old-school approach,” Cox said. “We’re going to flirt with the idea.”

It is – or was – more of a thing overseas. When I lived in Australia, I saw Makybe Diva win the Cox Plate (G1) going 1 1/4 miles only 10 days before she won an famous, third straight Melbourne Cup (G1) going two miles. That was back in 2005.

I have told the story time and again about the traveling assistant for a European trainer who was talking to a few of us reporters a few years ago at Arlington Park. We were discussing a horse who was racing again less than a week after a victory overseas. Seeing the looks of astonishment on the faces of us Americans, the man chuckled and said, “You Yanks have no balls.”

The lad actually had it wrong. What he accused us of lacking are exactly what American horsemen are protecting, namely the equine tools of the breeding trade. Why not? Look at the millions of dollars poured into stallions and their fees. By comparison, race purses are walking-around money.

It is not just this game. Asset protection is the order of the day in all sports. Baseball long ago abandoned four-man pitching rotations and short bullpens in order to preserve arms. Basketball uses the flimsy excuse of load management to extend players’ durability. Hockey players hide behind vague references to upper- and lower-body injuries to lighten their workloads. Even king football is not immune, what with the omnipresent specter of too many concussions coming from too many games.

Some things never change in sports. No wonder we cringe when some things finally do. It is human nature, right? Or just a sign of old age.

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