Although it's unlikely much about the Kentucky Derby will ever change, veteran rider Gary Stevens said Thursday that he'd like to see the field size reduced for the safety of the horses and riders involved. Speaking on an NTRA media teleconference, Stevens said in his estimation (and that of fellow rider Mike Smith, who piloted Girvin in the race), this year's Derby was one of the roughest for traffic he's ever seen.
“I would love to see it limited to 14 horses. Is that going to happen? No, absolutely not. It won't happen until something bad happens, and I hope it doesn't,” said Stevens. “As rough as the Derby was this year, I'm afraid that something is going to happen. It's refreshing to know we're going into Baltimore with a limit of 14 horses.
“That old saying 'It is what it is,” usually means you just got screwed. But, it is what it is.”
Several horses encountered traffic troubles, including McCraken, who came out of the race with a small puncture wound, as well as Classic Empire and Irish War Cry.
“Watching this year's Derby repeatedly, there were several incidents throughout the race that we're lucky horses didn't fall, especially at the 3/8 pole,” Stevens said. “Behind what was going on up front, there was some heavy contact going on that a horse or multiple horses could have fallen.”
If the Derby was limited to 14, as the Oaks and Preakness are, it would also eliminate the need for the auxiliary starting gate, which this year appeared to more than one horseman to be angled slightly inward, directing outside horses toward the center of the track.
Trainer Mark Casse said that although Classic Empire experienced several issues related to the large field, he thinks the field size is part of what makes the Derby a challenging race to win, and heightens the accomplishment of the winner. The Oaks is limited to 14, Casse believes, because of the shorter run-up to the first turn; based on the position of the start, Oaks horses have only 3/16 of a mile to the turn, while Derby horses have 5/16 mile to find their positions and settle.
Casse does wonder whether a single, 20-horse gate (if it were possible to construct such a thing) could help reduce some of the scrambling at the start. Casse said in the first few jumps out of a regular gate, horses are so close together they generate less forward and back momentum and “sort of keep each other up.” The gap between the main gate and auxiliary gate in the Derby gives horses more space to create sideways momentum and slam together with greater force.
Of course, poor starts can happen in smaller fields, too. Todd Pletcher recalled Dreaming of Julia's start from the sixth post position in the 2013 Oaks was marred by serious bumping with rival Pure Fun, despite the field only including ten fillies.
“I don't think it's going to change, so it's probably just a conversation piece, really,” Pletcher said. “Those things happen in all kinds of races — short fields, big fields, big races — I think when you have the auxiliary gate, there's that little bit of margin where horses can break inwards or outwards. It's not limited to big fields only.”
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