The toughest adversary facing this year's Kentucky Derby field is a familiar one. In fact, it's the same foe that has taken down countless would-be roses bearers for the past 115 years.
Its name is 10 furlongs — aka 11/4 miles. It is harsh. It is unforgiving. It has the ability to ruin lifelong dreams while producing a euphoria that is unrivaled in the sport of Thoroughbred racing.
The Kentucky Derby has been run at its signature 11/4-mile distance since 1896. And, for all the talent that lines up in the Churchill Downs gate each May, it is the extra furlong each 3-year-old will be traveling for the first time that commands the utmost respect.
Rare are the trainers who haven't had the distance question posed to them Derby week. This year figures to be no different as many of the top contenders in the Herald-Leader's fourth annual Derby Dozen — including 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo and Grade I winners Boys At Tosconova and Comma to the Top — don't have stamina in their pedigrees.
"I think it's a concern for all of them," said Peter Miller, trainer of Comma to the Top, whose sire, Bwana Charlie, was primarily a sprinter. "Until they do it, you never know. He hasn't shown me anything in his training or races that would lead me to believe he could not do it. But you can definitely help them get the distance by keeping them relaxed and maybe stretching out their gallops and their works a little bit."
Bloodlines are generally considered a prerequisite for a horse to get the 11/4 miles because many have succumbed to distance limitations on the sire's and/or dam's side.
However, exceptional talent can overcome pedigree. Two of the most visually impressive Derby winners of the past decade have been Big Brown (2008) and Smarty Jones (2004). Both were by sires in Boundary and Elusive Quality, respectively, who were most successful at a mile or less.
While Secretariat's Triple Crown sweep in 1973 remains the standard for equine excellence, some pundits openly wondered before the Derby whether a son of Bold Ruler could stand up to the Derby distance and beyond.
"I think pedigree plays a big part in it until you get that exceptional horse that defies all odds," said trainer John Servis, who conditioned Smarty Jones. "You see horses that are sired by typical sprinter sires and then, all of a sudden, you will see them going a route of ground because they are super-talented horses.
"Any horse will go long if they are in against the right company. The super-talented ones can run against better horses and carry that speed."
But a classic pedigree is still the trait most want to have in their 3-year-old's corner when that extra 220 yards shows up in the stretch.
"I do think, genetically, you're not going to get a horse to do something they're not capable of doing," said former trainer Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm which owned and bred 2010 Derby winner Super Saver. "Now that doesn't mean Uncle Mo won't win the Derby, it just means we don't know what Uncle Mo's predisposition to distance is. But you can't train a successful distance horse just by training them to be a distance horse."