Prep Lite, It's the new favorite brand of Cool-Aid for owners and trainers alike. Sure, some still buy the original recipe but the fresh new taste of Prep Lite is where it's at.
Back in 1996 the average number of career starts for a Derby entrant was 9.05. In 2008 that average had fallen to 6.30. The average number of prep races used to be 4.25 and for the first time last year it dipped below 3 (2008 - 2.90).
The interesting thing about the lack of starts for Derby entrants is that at one time the most inexperienced horses in the race were longshots. Sometimes they were well regarded but rarely did they perform up to expectations. If you took the 3 most inexperienced horses from each Derby from 2000-2006 only Congaree hit the frame.
Recently Prep Lite makers seem to have perfected the mixture because in just the last two years Big Brown, Hard Spun, Curlin and Denis of Cork were among the 3 most inexperienced horses in their Derby's. Inexperienced horses have gone from being under performing wild cards to legitimate contenders and favorites.
Last year even the guideline that required a pair of two turn preps was assaulted. Big Brown had two "route" prep races if you want to get technical because 8f on the dirt is considered to be a route but he only had one start around two turns and he was the first horse since 1996 to run well in the Derby after having just one start around two turns. The other 17 horses who tried it failed to make it into the top 3. Among them were Bellamy Road, Showing Up, Favorite Trick and Saarland.
It makes you wonder if perhaps trainers are getting their horses fitter with less prep work or if winning the Derby requires less stoutness than it once did. Remember that even if no horse in the Derby had a prep race someone would still have to win it. Perhaps the reduction in seasoning both in terms of a horses entire career and their prep schedule has resulted in an average lower level of fitness and thereby negating whatever disadvantage inexperience may bring. It's just a theory but in the last 5 years the average Beyer Speed figure earned while winning the Derby was 107.4. In the two 5 year periods prior to that it was 111 and 110.8. Make of that what you will.
Another stat opposing the fresh faces this year is for horses who failed to run a two turn race before March of their three year old season. Those horses have gone 31-1-2-2 in the Derby. Silver Charm was the one horse who defied the odds. He had a pair of two turn preps but never went around two turns until March in the San Felipe. The entire career of horses is taken into account so it would be entrants like Imperial Council and Quality Road who get included not Big Brown last year who had run a two turn race as a juvenile.
This year those guidelines will be tested once again with at least Quality Road and Theregoesjojo likely to have just one two turn prep before the Derby and the lightly raced Dunkirk, Imperial Council and Mr. Fantasy getting some serious attention. It's a new world out there, one where convention is challenged and those who prefer to sip something full bodied are in danger of losing touch.