By J.J. Hysell
You start hearing about it every year, usually around late April when the Kentucky Derby field is narrowed down and all are seeking to separate the pretenders from the real contenders.
The “Curse of Apollo” is one of the most touted and well-known Derby angles. It refers to Apollo, winner of the Derby in 1882 and the last horse to win the prestigious race who didn’t have a start at the age of 2.
Handicappers with a firm belief in this angle – who instantly will toss a Derby contender that began his or her career at 3 – had their faith somewhat shaken when Bodemeister nearly stole it on the front end before being passed by I’ll Have Another in 2012. He came up short, but Bodemeister – who began his career in a maiden race at Santa Anita on Jan. 16 – shed light on the fact that it’s possible for a talented, classy horse to overcome these “rules.”
The Curse of Apollo could get a firm test in 2014. This year, there appear to be many contenders who could end up deep on the Derby trail who didn’t start at 2. Most popular are the Todd Pletcher-trained “Trio of Tapits” based at Gulfstream. Constitution, Hartford and Anchor Down are all sons of Tapit who made their debuts as 3-year-olds in January. All three were impressive in their first starts, boast solid pedigrees and appear to have bright futures.
The same trend is occurring at Oaklawn as well. Paganol, a son of Tiz Wonderful trained by Cody Autrey, won a key maiden race at that track on Jan. 11. He’s on the Derby trail and being pointed to the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 17. The colt who finished second to Paganol while making his debut, Street Strategy, came back to win impressively at Oaklawn Thursday in his second start and could also be headed to a stakes race soon. Street Strategy, a powerful gray trained by Randy Morse, is a son of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense.
While some would say a late start is the main obstacle for these contenders, it’s more likely the Derby point system. While other Derby hopefuls who got an early start have collected a few points along the way, these late bloomers will need to be at their best quickly to earn enough points to make the field.
Is this the year the Curse of Apollo is eradicated? Stay tuned.