Sports fans know all about the "Curse of the Billy Goat." It was placed on the Chicago Cubs when local tavern owner William "Billy Goat" Sianis cursed the Cubs when he was not allowed to bring his pet goat, Murphy, into Wrigley Field to watch a 1945 World Series game. The curse was finally snapped when the team won the 2016 World Series.
But what about the "Curse of Apollo?" It now stands at 136 years-- the oldest curse in American sports. No unraced 2-year old has gone on to win the Kentucky Derby since Apollo in 1882.
Since 1937, sixty one horses have entered the Derby without a race at two. Their record, a collective "0 for 61." Most recently Bodemeister came the closest to ending the famed Apollo streak in the 2012 Derby. The Bob Baffert trainee tried to wire the field, opening a clear lead at the top of the stretch, only to be worn down by I'll Have Another in the final sixteenth of a mile.
This year a pair of budding superstars, Justify and Magnum Moon, head to Kentucky both undefeated looking to sack the so-called Apollo curse in the 144th renewal of the "Run for the Roses" on May 5.
Derby prospects used to race 10 or 12 times before stepping foot on the Churchill Downs racetrack. That thinking is long gone. While the maturity gained racing as a juvenile can be pivotal in conquering the ten furlong 20 horse melee, changes in breeding and training have made competing as a 2-year old less of an imperative. With thoroughbreds being bred for speed at the expense of stamina, today's trainers have adapted by further spacing out the timing of their colt's prep races.
Two top Derby contenders for 2018, Bolt d'Oro and Good Magic, will have a total number of career starts of six and five, respectively. Upstarts Justify and Magnum Moon will arrive with just three and four lifetime starts.
“It is what it is,” Todd Pletcher, trainer of Magnum Moon, told Brisnet.com. “I think trends with the winners in terms of days between races and number of preps has been changing the last 10-15 years, so it’s only a matter of time before this one changes, too. With two of the top choices this year, we’ll certainly be testing the curse.”
This year's field features an abundance of star power and intrigue. It's as deep and gifted a group of thoroughbreds as we've seen in a long time. Watching the final rounds of Derby preps this spring it was one monster performance after another.
In his short racing career, Justify continues to not only live up to the hype, but exceed it. You want speed? The Bob Baffert trainee is a perfect 3-for-3 posting lofty Beyer Speed Figures of 107, 104 and 101. No other 3-year old can touch those consistent numbers. His Derby tune-up was a smooth sailing three length score over three-time graded stakes winner Bolt d'Oro in the Santa Anita Derby in just his third race. Justify's racing debut was Feb. 18.
“What you’re seeing right now is really just raw talent,” said jockey Mike Smith after the Santa Anita Derby. “He’s got so much room to grow, to even get better, believe it or not. I think this race is going to put a lot more bottom into him."
Seeking his fifth Kentucky Derby triumph, Baffert masterfully schooled Justify from unraced maiden to Kentucky Derby favorite in a span of just 48 days. A beautiful chestnut, big and powerful with muscles on his muscles, Justify's morning workouts at Santa Anita have horsemen raving about the fluidity of his stride and push-button acceleration.
Extremely professional and bright-minded for such a lightly raced colt, Justify commanded $500,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. A son of the late Scat Daddy, he is owned by China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm. The owners allowed him time to grow into his large frame, maturing into a confident colt. His freakish talent looks like it can overcome a lack of experience, foundation and travel. The Derby will be his first race away from southern California.
Breaking cleanly from the starting gate and establishing position is vital as colts fight for the right spot in the chaotic scrum through the clubhouse turn. Justify's natural speed should put him right into the mix. Sitting just off the pace, he'll be ready to pounce on the far turn, swiftly gobbling up ground down the stretch with his enormous stride. If he wins the Derby off of just three lifetime starts Justify will join Big Brown (2008) as the only colt to accomplish the feat in the past 103 years and also end the Apollo curse once and for all.
Tenacious with a level-headed professionalism, Magnum Moon has stuffed plenty of racing experiences in a career that began Jan. 18. After winning a pair of allowances, he put away a field of seasoned pros showing good stalking speed and a powerful late kick in the Rebel Stakes. In the Arkansas Derby he went eyeball to eyeball with the nice colt Quip on the far turn before spurting away in his gate-to-wire, four length victory. Four impressive victories run in multiple styles over four very different types of tracks. One concern: drifting out in the deep stretch, a flaw his Hall of Fame trainer Pletcher should smooth over by the time he hits Louisville.
Based at Palm Beach Downs near Delray Beach, the bay colt was purchased for $380,000 by Robert and Lawana Low of Springfield, Missouri. His pedigree features such powerhouses as A.P. Indy, Unbridled’s Song, Seattle Slew, Unbridled and Giant’s Causeway among the six stallions in his second and third generations, so the mile and a quarter should be right in his wheelhouse.
With a May 9 foaling date Magnum Moon is the youngest of Pletcher's four Derby entries. Ridden by Luis Saez, the colt has excellent tactical speed, races smartly and stays out of trouble. With Beyer Speed Figures of 97 and 98 in his last two races, he'll need to jump up a bit to win the Derby. If so, it could be Magnum Moon that puts an end to the reign of Apollo.
Irish invader Mendelssohn crushed rivals in UAE Derby (Dubai) by an astounding 18 1/2 length victory in March, breaking the track record at 1 3/16 miles. It translated to a 106 Beyer. Another gifted son of Scat Daddy, he boasts strong ties to American breeding. He is a half brother to Beholder, a four-time champion. Mendelssohn has been stamped as the best ever foreign-based prospect yet to try his talents in the signature American classic.
The powerful Coolmore partnership of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier and Derrick Smith purchased the bay colt as a yearling for $3 million. He is a horse with a ton of speed who can carry it long distances. Last fall he successfully navigated the counter-clockwise U. S. racing at Del Mar, bursting away to capture the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Mendelssohn has now won three consecutive stakes on three different surfaces – dirt, synthetic, and grass – on three different continents. Located in County Tipperary in Ireland, Coolmore's Ballydoyle is acknowledged by many racing experts to be the finest training grounds in the world. Aidan O'Brien tutored a world record 26 Group-1 winners in 2017.
Others in the mix: How all these youngsters handle the raucous crowd of 160,000 and the one-of-a-kind Derby chaos is anybody's guess. Audible has posted a pair of 99 Beyers this year and dazzled in his last prep, shredding the field in the Florida Derby. There's a lot to like. Bolt d' Oro is a talented, tactical horse with a lot of heart who will be piloted by Victor Espinoza, a three-time Derby winner. He should be a serious threat for mercurial owner/trainer Mick Ruis. Vino Rosso showed a fighting spirit and bumped up his Beyer to 98 in the Wood Memorial. He should be coming late down the Derby lane. Look for last year's 2-year old champ Good Magic in the second tier of horses in excellent striking position ready to make one sustained run from about a mile out. He's giving top trainer Chad Brown all the right signs.
I'm ready to toss out the history books: 1. Justify 2. Magnum Moon 3. Audible 4. Mendelssohn