(Bloomberg) -- Watch a horse race up close, like right-smack-next-to-the-rail kind of close, and you’ll see it: a thick, low-hanging cloud that follows the pack from the starting gate to the finish line.
That cloud is dirt. And it forms as the horses’ hooves tear through the track surface and kick up clumps of sand, clay and silt. Big and small, loose and tightly packed, these clods hurtle relentlessly from all angles at the shoulders, necks and faces of the horses—and jockeys—trailing the leaders.
Even for the most seasoned of thoroughbreds, it’s no fun. The dirt stings the flesh, gets into their eyes, coats their mouths and is sucked up into their nostrils. For the inexperienced, it’s a shocking experience. Some find it difficult to breathe. They'll lift their heads high in the air to try to escape the pounding or give up and drift hopelessly out of contention.
“It can be hard,” says trainer Todd Pletcher, “to comprehend just how significant and how intimidating for a horse it can be.”
This is why—or partly why—Pletcher and other American trainers spend so much time teaching their charges to fire quickly out of the starting gate. A colt that gains a prime spot among the leaders will be positioned to kick dirt on others, rather than having it kicked on him.
Nowhere, perhaps, is this dirt-eating challenge greater than in the Kentucky Derby, a 20-horse stampede of a race run on the first Saturday in May. Break a half-step slow in the Derby and you’re stuck behind an imposing wall of rivals.
The more experienced and mentally-tough horses will persevere and run their race. Some of them may even be comfortable galloping behind such a huge pack. But the greenest members of the group—those that have never done anything but lead from start to finish—often flop badly when pressed into this situation.
Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner, knows this all too well. Back in 2015, his undefeated colt Materiality stumbled out of the gate and floundered badly as the dirt began to pelt him. A speedball that had never been farther back than second in his previous races, he dropped farther and farther behind, all the way to 17th at one point. By the time he got acclimated to the kickback and started running more eagerly, it was too late. He finished sixth.
This year, Pletcher brings four top prospects to the Derby. He’s confident they’ll run well if they find themselves stuck behind other horses. All four have done it before.
But that’s not true for either of the Derby’s biggest stars.
The European colt, Mendelssohn, has done most of his racing on grass, a surface that’s much gentler on come-from-behind horses. And then there’s the big chestnut colt from California, Justify. A freak of a talent, he’s cruised to the most facile of victories the three times he’s run. He will most certainly be the race-time favorite on Saturday. And if he breaks well, he could romp again. But if he doesn’t, he will taste dirt for the very first time, and he will decide at that moment whether to soldier on or to follow the path Materiality took—to the back of the pack. —David Papadopoulos
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.