What's Changed For Kentucky Derby Horses?

by Amrita Khalid

It’s finally time to break out those fascinators, don your most fabulous Lilly and spend hours swilling mint juleps: Saturday marks the Kentucky Derby. Known as the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports”, very little has changed for the world’s most famous horsing event in Churchill Downs, Kentucky since its inception in 1896. In fact, many consider that a part of the Kentucky Derby’s charm. The tradition-heavy event, which mixes high-stakes gambling, high fashion and booze for an ingenious combination, went so far as to ban selfie sticks and drones earlier this month.

But despite its deeply-rooted traditions, the Kentucky Derby has changed in more significant ways this year. And we’re not just talking about puppies predicting the Derby winners or a racehorse with a personal Twitter account.

1. More horses are hailing from outside Kentucky

It’s true that more than 106 winners of the Kentucky Derby hail from the same state that hosts the famous equestrian event. But many outside racehorses are kicking the Bluegrass State’s cream of the crop straight to the curb. According to U-T San Diego, one-fourth of this year’s 20 Kentucky Derby starters will be California-based horses. In fact, the 2014 winner of the Kentucky Derby was a young upstart named California Chrome.

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Competing in this year’s Kentucky Derby is far-flung traveller Mubtaahij, who was bred in Ireland and owned by a sheikh. If there’s a prize for longest distance travelled, Mubtaahij is surely the winner. The three-year old travelled from the United Arab Emirates by way of Amsterdam and Chicago in order to arrive at Churchill Downs earlier this week.

2. They aren’t getting any faster

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Recent research suggests that racehorses might have hit their biological peak as far as speed. The winner of the 1918 Kentucky Derby (lovingly named ‘Exterminator’) cleared the 1.25 mile race in 130 seconds. But the speedy Exterminator would have had trouble keeping up if he ran the race in 1914, when Old Rosebud ran the same path in 123 seconds. But as racehorses got bred to be faster and stronger over time, the winning times from year to year are starting to show less variation.

In fact, since Secretariat made Kentucky Derby history with a winning speed of 119 seconds in 1974, the winning speed hasn’t dipped below the 120 second mark since. In fact, a worrisome 2009 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology suggested that selective throughbreeding of racehorses may have the opposite effect than what is desired. The study concluded that despite the efforts of breeders to produce faster horses by thoroughbreeding, horses were becoming more fragile and suffering more injuries.

3. Their names are getting even better

When it comes to placing bets on racehorses, people often rely on names as thedeciding factor. Better to put your money on the aptly-named “Speed Demon” than “The Real Slim Chance”, right? Not quite. Several Kentucky Derby stars from previous years had down-right bizarre monikers that suggested their owners may have been inspired by more than a couple shots of bourbon. For example, the 1915 winner was named “Regret”, 1944’s was simply “Pensive” and 1994’s was “Go for the Gin”. Having a name that starts with an “s” may be a good sign. According to the Kentucky Derby’s official site, a total of 19 Derby winners’ names from previous years start with “s”.

According to the Wall Street Journal, naming criteria for Kentucky Derby racehorses are pretty limited. If it’s no longer than 18 letters and contains no vulgar words or obscenities, your horse is good to go. In the running this year include a purposely misspelled “American Pharoah”, a “War Story” and a “Frosted”. To be fair, it can’t get any weirder than 1932’s Kentucky Derby winner “Burgoo King”, who actually pre-dated the famous fast food chain. The horse’s owner was famous for his “burgoo stew”, a popular meat stew served at the Kentucky Derby.

2. People are paying more to see them


People are shelling out about one month’s rent to see the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby this year. Forbes reported that the average price for a ticket to the Kentucky Derby on the secondary market is $1,028.74, with a get-in price of $64. Compare that to just last year, when tickets to the sporting event averaged at $621.57. The high costs tied to this year’s high-stakes affair is for a couple of reasons.

According to Bob Ehalt of ESPN, this year’s Derby is the first since 1955 to have at least 5 U.S. based horses who are undefeated at 3 years old. It’s not very often that such a high number of perfect scorers make the Derby in the same year. By point of comparison, only one horse with a spotless record, California Chrome, competed at the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

1. There are stiffer penalties for illegal drugs

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The practice of drugging racehorses in order for them perform better on the track has drawn controversy over the years from animal rights groups and has emerged as a pet issue in Congress. Stiffer regulations and penalties have recently been imposed by various racehorse licensing authorities.

The Association of Racing Commissioners International announced Tuesday a new ban on administering cobalt to a racehorse. Cobalt has drawn buzz in the equine community for its performance-boosting benefits on the racetrack. According to the organization’s press release, horses would be suspended for 15 days and trainers fined a total of $500 if a certain level of the cobalt was found in the horse’s system.

Images: Getty Images (4)