LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- --Afair share of horse racing insiders doubted that Barbaro would win the Kentucky Derby last year strictly because he had five weeks off before the race. No horse since Needles in 1956 had won the Derby after a layoff that long.
Barbaro's 6 1/2 -length victory turned that thinking upside down, and this year, a handful of the 20 Derby contenders will be coming off long layoffs. Circular Quay will have been off for an unheard-of eight weeks by the time he starts tomorrow at Churchill Downs. Scat Daddy will have been off for six weeks.
"Last year, I was the most unorthodox trainer there was. Now, this year, all these people look like geniuses," Michael Matz, Barbaro's trainer, said recently. "When I did it, it was voodoo."
The Derby is overrun this year with "voodoo," a perfect name for the many statistical and historical trends that seemingly eliminate certain horses from Derby contention - until, as with Barbaro, that trend is debunked.
This year's 7-2 morning-line favorite, a blazing colt named Curlin, is bucking an especially long-standing trend. Although he is undefeated, he didn't race as a 2-year-old, and the last horse to win the Derby without racing at 2 was Apollo in 1882.
That sounds ominous, but Curlin's trainer, Steve Asmussen, isn't exactly sweating.
"We laugh about that all the time," Asmussen said recently. "I think I'll name our lead pony Apollo. We've had a lot of nice horses. Nice horses can't do what [Curlin] can do."
At least Curlin's voodoo has a history, however old and brief. The winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile for 2-year-olds has never come back to win the Derby six months later. Some observers believe that spells trouble for Street Sense, the speedy colt who won the Juvenile last November and is the second choice at 4-1 tomorrow.
Along the same lines, the last Derby winner to run in just two prep races before the first Saturday in May was Gato del Sol in 1982; before that, it was Jet Pilot in 1947. That doesn't sound promising for the four horses (Great Hunter, Dominican, Circular Quay and Street Sense) who are going to try to win tomorrow after just two prep races, but, well, does it really matter?
"We want you to believe this is a science, but it's really not," said trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the Derby three times but doesn't have an entry this year.
For years, the biggest piece of voodoo hovering over the Derby was the supposed infallibility of the dosage index, a statistic measuring the quality of a horse's pedigree. It is scored like golf, the lower the better, and for years, no horse with an index above 4.0 had won the Derby. Handicappers faithfully threw out a handful of Derby horses every year, including some favorites, just because their math didn't add up.
Then, Strike the Gold won the 1991 Derby with a dosage index that was, hmm, over 5.0. Oops.
The keepers of the dosage flame quickly adjusted some sire ratings after the race to get Strike the Gold back under 4.0, but it didn't matter. The game was over when Real Quiet, Charismatic and Giacomo all won the Derby in ensuing years with indexes over 4.0. Now, you never hear about dosage anymore, just like you'll never hear about long pre-Derby layoffs again.
Baffert said he would gladly take on any daunting historical or statistical voodoo with a horse who has talent, health and luck.
"The field is so big [20 horses] in the Derby that you have to have luck," Baffert said. "Forget everything else."
But does that mean all the voodoo is nonsense, just something to talk about? Not entirely.
If Curlin doesn't win tomorrow, it won't be because he didn't race as a 2-year-old. (He supposedly had sore shins, a common injury among younger horses.) But the fact that he didn't means he isn't as experienced in general, and that could matter in a rollicking, 20-horse race before 150,000 screaming fans.
"The more experience they can get at running and being in different situations, the more it's going to help them," said John Shirreffs, who won the 2005 Derby with Giacomo and is back this year with Tiago.
Curlin, with just three career starts, would be the least-experienced Derby winner since Regret in 1915.
"He's sort of bucking some historical trends," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who will start five horses tomorrow, "but he's the one horse out there that has sort of separated himself from the ones he has run against."
Will this year's voodoo become next year's hot training trend? It has certainly happened before.