High-profile trainers Nick Zito, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and D. Wayne Lukas saddled half the field in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby. The best any of their horses finished was seventh.
By contrast, the top three finishers - Giacomo, Closing Argument and Afleet Alex - were trained by Derby novices John Shirreffs, Kiaran McLaughlin and Tim Ritchey, respectively.
What's more, Shirreffs became the third straight trainer to win the Derby on his first try, following John Servis with Smarty Jones last year and Barclay Tagg with Funny Cide the year before. You have to go back to 1928-1930 to find first-time Derby trainers' winning the race back-to-back-to-back.
Yesterday, after arriving at Pimlico with Giacomo for Saturday's Preakness, Shirreffs was asked about that statistic. He was unimpressed.
"There's a pretty simple answer to that," Shirreffs said. "The horse is the Derby winner."
Lukas, whose horses have won four Kentucky Derbies and five Preaknesses, agreed.
"You establish credibility with longevity," said Lukas, whose Going Wild will be his 31st Preakness starter in 25 years. "But the horse is the most important ingredient. If you've got the best horse on that particular day, then anything's liable to happen."
It did in the Derby, when Giacomo at 50-1, Closing Argument at 71-1 and Afleet Alex at 9-2 triggered record payoffs. Funny Cide was also a long shot, paying $27.60 to win, but Smarty Jones was the tepid favorite and returned $10.20.
The recent trend is a coincidence, some said, that could be negated next year if Zito, not Shirreffs, Pletcher or Tagg, has the best 3-year-old on the first Saturday in May.
Although Lukas preaches annually about the importance of Derby experience for trainers, he acknowledged that Tagg, Servis and Shirreffs were understandable exceptions to the rule.
"They were experienced horsemen who knew what to do when they got a good horse."
Gary West, a turf writer for 24 years, currently employed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said the success of the Derby rookies proved they'd been paying attention.
"They've been observant," West said. "There are ways to enhance your chances of success in the Derby. For years, it seemed that only a few guys knew how to win it - Lukas, Baffert and Zito."
Those three won six straight Kentucky Derbies from 1994 to 1999. Since then, they've won one.
The recent winning trainers, West said, "watched and learned how their elders did things. They made sure that their horse didn't peak too soon."
Ritchey, trainer of Afleet Alex, sought out Billy Turner, trainer of Seattle Slew, and discussed Derby preparations, including the optimum number of Derby preps and distance of the races. Like Seattle Slew in 1977, Afleet Alex opened his 3-year-old season in a sprint and raced three times before the Derby.
Servis, who trained Smarty Jones, winner of last year's Derby and Preakness, said: "I watched the Derby every year for a long time. I followed the horses going to the Derby and what they did. It comes down to doing what we do every day of our lives, whether it's the Derby, the Breeders' Cup or the Miss Preakness Stakes: Getting your horse to peak on the day of the race."
Steven Crist has observed racing for more than 20 years as a turf writer for the New York Times, an executive at the New York Racing Association and head of the Racing Times and Daily Racing Form.
"Probably now more than anytime in history you've got previous Derby-winning trainers coming back year after year after year, sometimes with their last horse standing," Crist said. "I can't really knock them because it's important to those guys' careers to get one to the Derby every year."
With so many horse owners coveting the Derby experience and looking for a trainer to make that happen, it's significant when an owner can say: "Boy, that Baffert, he gets one to the Derby every year," Crist said.
"I don't think trainers used to think that way," Crist continued. "Twenty years ago, trainers almost to a man would probably have said they weren't going to the Derby unless they had a horse they thought had a great chance to win.
"Bob Baffert, without cracking up, couldn't have said Sort it Out had a great chance to win the Derby."
At odds of 61-1, Sort It Out finished 17th. But Baffert got the owners, who had bought the horse privately in February, their wish of starting him in the Derby.
With that Derby-at-all-cost mindset, Crist said, the high-profile trainers have ended up at Churchill Downs recently with second-rate contenders, leaving the race for the taking to a less-experienced trainer with a better horse.
McLaughlin trained Closing Argument, this year's Derby runner-up. He had never trained a Derby starter, but had worked seven years as an assistant to Lukas.
"Derby horses land in all kinds of different barns," McLaughlin said. "They don't all land in Bob Baffert's, Nick Zito's, Wayne Lukas' or Todd Pletcher's."