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Blunders, Bluster, and the Tight Turns of Pimlico

The “tight turns” at Pimlico have been so thoroughly debunked by now that the horse racing world can agree that the only Tight Turn we ever saw at Pimlico was the Delaware-bred gelding by that name who raced on the Mid-Atlantic circuit back in the 1950s, and posted at least one recorded work over the course.

There are decades worth of articles debunking the idea of Pimlico’s turns being so tight (1988, 2002, 2015, to cite just a few), but I wondered where that trope came from in the first place.  I have yet to unearth enough information to say something conclusive about the origin of the term, though a few whispers of origin story suggest it might trace back to the second half of the 1950s.  A 1997 book, “Crown Jewels of Thoroughbred Racing” by Richard Stone Reeves, dates it to Chick Lang’s jockey agent days, attributing to Lang a claim that Fabius, a horse his jockey Bill Hartack was riding, would benefit from the tight turns.   Alternately, a 2002 Baltimore Sun article claims that Eddie Arcaro called the turns “tight” in 1957, though later regretted the wording as an inaccurate way of saying the track was narrower through the turns.  Alas, without better sources of track scuttlebutt or jockey agent bluster, conclusively tracing the origin of the “tight turns” trope may be an exercise in futility.

But, one thing is for sure: the 1970s were the heyday of colourful references to Pimlico’s most enduring myth.

Arcaro may have regretted using the word “tight”, but perhaps the most lamentable usage related to Pimlico’s turns was made by Seth Hancock in 1974.  Hancock owned Judger, eighth in the 1974 Kentucky Derby behind entrymate Cannonade.  As recounted in a May 10, 1974 article syndicated by the Associated Press, Hancock stated:

Pimlico has too many tight turns and it has a short stretch. We won’t run him there, but we will point him for the Belmont.

I guess zero was too many.

At least once, a horse owner suggested that the turns at Pimlico would keep his horse out of the Preakness even if he won the Derby.  Said Chuck Schmidt, co-owner of Kentucky Derby prospect Flag Officer, as quoted in a May 4, 1977 Chicago Tribune column by David Condon (account required):

Naturally, once you win the Derby there’s all sorts of pressure to get you to the Preakness.  But I’d have to do lots of soul-searching before I’d agree to commit Flag Officer to the Preakness.

Flag Officer would have less chance in the Preakness than the other two Triple Crown events.  It’s only a mile and 3-16s, and with those tight turns and short stretch at Pimlico our colt might be victimized by some cheap speed.

Anyhow, if  you win the Kentucky Derby, you’ve really done the job.

We never got the chance to test the veracity of Schmidt’s claim that he’d bypass a Triple Crown bid.  Flag Officer, the longest shot on the board at 46/1, finished 10th behind Seattle Slew in the 1977 Kentucky Derby.  Of course, the malarkey about tight turns at Pimlico failed to dissuade Team Slew, and he went on to win the Triple Crown.

Where one Chicago-area owner let the “tight turns” give him pause, another used them as reason for bombast.  Just before the 1976 Preakness,  Chicago Tribune columnist David Condon checked in with Eugene Cashman, owner of Elocutionist (account required), and the Windy City commodities trader had no lack of confidence:

“Elocutionist could run in a bull ring,” Cashman said. “He’ll hug those turns like a hoop around a barrel. You’ve got to consider that Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure might go wide…and in that case it’ll be a very interesting race.”

People may have chuckled at his barrel analogy, but Cashman and friends had the last laugh.  The race had been billed as almost a match race between Bold Forbes and Honest Pleasure, but it was 10/1 shot Elocutionist who kicked home a three-and-a-half-length winner.  Condon’s May 16, 1976 recap of the race, also for the Chicago Tribune (account required), hearkened back to Pimlico’s most enduring trope, though in a slightly less colorful manner than Cashman’s invocation:

The Elocutionist triumph was more impressive by the way the colt moved outside to grab the lead. Cashman, Lively, and trainer Paul Adwell figured the top contenders might drift wide on Pimlico’s tight turns and give Elocutionist the opportunity to shoot through on the rail.

Despite the fact that the turns at Pimlico are not significantly tighter than at other major racetracks, the “tight turns” descriptor continues to be bandied about.  The best we can do is keep an eye out for its most fun appearances — and keep our fingers crossed that maybe, just maybe, Tight Turn was named because someone was already sick of the repetition over sixty years ago.

How Old Is the Curse of Apollo?

Churchill Downs, nineteen years after Apollo won the Kentucky Derby. (Public Domain)

It seems you can’t open Twitter, Facebook, or a Daily Racing Form nowadays without seeing references to the Curse of Apollo, since two of the marquee Derby contenders, Justify and Magnum Moon, did not race at age two.  As most of us who follow the sport closely know, it has been a long time since horse untested as a juvenile won the Derby.  Apollo did it in 1882, but no one has done it since.  It has now been 136 years since an unraced 2-year-old went on to win the Derby.

There has been no shortage of analysis of whether it matters from a handicapping perspective that a Derby horse hasn’t run at two.  But, we’re interested in language here: how long have people actually been talking about a Curse of Apollo in the context of the Kentucky Derby?

It’s a concept the excellent racing history blog Colin’s Ghost skirted in 2012, the year of Bodemeister’s attempt to buck the trend.  Its author, Kevin Martin, found nothing older than 1982 invoking the name Apollo in the context of a Kentucky Derby horse who did not race at two.  That year the Derby favorite, Air Forbes Won, did not debut until March of his 3-year-old year.  He entered the Derby undefeated in four starts, but crossed the wire in Louisville almost 10 lengths adrift of winner Gato Del Sol.

That was the earliest link between a specific unraced 2-year-old in the Kentucky Derby and Apollo that I could find, too.  But I found the underlying idea predates that, and the phrasing “Curse of Apollo” came far more recently.

The Need to Race at Two

There is some history behind discussing the idea that a horse should race at two in order to be a legitimate Derby contender.  In 1939 — oddly enough, a year during which no unraced 2-year-old saw the starter in the Derby — the Daily Racing Form ran a short column entitled “Proven Two-Year-Olds Best.”

Though the column did not invoke the Curse of Apollo in so many words, it did point out that only Day Star and Apollo had won the Derby without a start at two.  The comment about Day Star is inaccurate.  According to both the  Kentucky Derby’s official published profile of Day Star as well as an 1883 book by S. D. Bruce entitled “The Horse-Breeder’s Guide and Hand Book,” Day Star did race at two, including a second-place finish behind Blue Eyes in a one-mile race called the Sanford Stakes (in Louisville, not the one we know today at Saratoga).

The first paragraph of the 1939 Daily Racing Form column contained a clear statement of the precept we now know as the Curse of Apollo:

“…it has become practically impossible for a three-year-old which did not race as a juvenile to win a running of the famed classic.”

The fifth paragraph of the article cites a time frame that seems quaintly short by now, and takes the idea even further:

“But the triumphs of Day Star and Apollo were fifty-seven and more years ago.  Today, with the Derby at its greatest, it is practically a prerequisite of a good Derby candidate, that he have distinguished himself in juvenile racing.”

The assertion that a horse must not only have raced at two, but must have “distinguished himself” that year, was fleshed out by Andrew Beyer almost 50 years later into one of his Derby rules.  In 1988, a year in which all the Derby entrants raced at two, he suggested a rule that presupposed a Derby winner had raced at two: “As a 2-year-old, a horse must have finished in the money in a stakes race at a mile or more.”

Beyer didn’t mention Apollo in that article, but based on a piece he wrote earlier, he might not have known yet of Apollo’s feat.  In an April 30, 1982 article for the Washington Post, he made one of the strongest statements of what we now know as the Curse of Apollo, in a column leading up to Air Forbes Won’s attempt in the Kentucky Derby.  The irony is, he had no idea what Apollo had done at the time when he wrote the column.  In dismissing Air Forbes Won as a possible Derby winner, Beyer wrote:

“Besides, Air Forbes Won has had the wrong kind of preparation to succeed in the Derby. He has crammed his entire career into a six-week period, while history suggests that a horse needs much more of a foundation to go 1 1/4 miles successfully. In 107 years, the Derby never has been won by a horse who did not race as a 2-year-old.”

Beyond these more deliberate explorations of Derby prospects not racing at two, writers and pundits who cared to even mention that a Derby prospect didn’t race at two were few and far between.  It earned a bit of mention in 1948 when a future Hall of Fame inductee entered the Derby without a race at two.  Even then, that bit of his history never formed the focus.

A Daily Racing Form article entitled “Coaltown May Be Exception To Rule” mentioned that Coaltown didn’t race at age two — but, the article never invoked Apollo.  The “rule” in question had nothing to do with the rule (or jinx, or curse) of Apollo, but rather whether  or not “there’s a better one in the barn” always proved false.  Some thought Coaltown was actually the better one in the barn — but it was Citation, the stablemate who had run at two, who won the roses.  Based on articles published in the Daily Racing Form leading up to the 1948 Kentucky Derby, the fact that Coaltown never raced at two seemed at most a throwaway tidbit.  Another article mentioned that Coaltown was kept off the racetrack at two because of a sinus abscess, but did not use that as a reason to question his status as a strong Derby contender.  When the Form interviewed ninety-three different people about their Derby picks, mainly owners and trainers, the closest anyone came to casting aspersions on Coaltown’s shorter race record was when trainer Herb Fisher picked Citation because he was “the most seasoned horse in the race.”

But, beyond Coaltown?  People cared even less.  Bert G., a Canadian longshot in 1945, was called “lightly raced,” but nothing more specific.  It didn’t come up in either a preview nor dozens of “person-on-the-street” picks when discussing Fanfare in 1951, even though Fanfare was a Pensive half-brother to Coaltown.  A UPI syndicated article in 1974 not only failed to mention that Agitate never ran at two, but proclaimed that Agitate had “the best record among the 23 horses entered” in the Derby — something no one would say nowadays about any Derby horse who only raced at three.

Invoking Apollo

Another article published on the same day as Beyer’s column dismissing Air Forbes Won did invoke Apollo.  A pair of Associated Press pieces published on April 30, 1982 cited Apollo.  One, credited to Dick Joyce, mentioned the tidbit without other context.  Another, syndicated in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, mentioned that Air Forbes Won had not run at age two due to an ankle issue, and then gave a short summary of his two-month, four-race career to date.  In the next paragraph, the author fired off a few quick hits of trivia:

“The only horse not raced as a 2-year-old who won the Derby was Apollo in 1882.  Air Forbes Won also is an Ohio-bred, and only one of them has won a Derby — Wintergreen, in 1909.”

They then went on to discussing other entrants.

However, people in 1982 were a lot like people in 2017.  Fifteen paragraphs before this discussion of Air Forbes Won’s lack of juvenile races came a mention that another Derby horse, Cassaleria, had just one eye.

Air Forbes Won seemed a bit of a Coaltown case, though: he was discussed in more detail in print because he was second on the morning line, and even went off the chalk.  In a time when column inches were rationed, he deserved more space.  From 1983 through 2003, 17 horses unraced at two ran in the Derby.  None went off favored.  Only four such horses went off at single-digit odds in their own right, and not part of coupled entries or the mutuel field: Corporate Report (8/1 in 1991), Strodes Creek (7/1 in 1994), Pulpit (5/1 in 1997), and Atswhatimtalknbout (8/1 in 2003).  An Associated Press piece about Atswhatimtalknbout did mention that he did not race at two, but did not reference Apollo, and mentioned the lack of a juvenile race record in the same breath as the fact that Steven Spielberg owned a piece of the horse.

In the days of the internet, more time and space opened for remembering Apollo.  Starting in 2004, commenters on the Pace Advantage horse racing forum began bandying about the fact that Apollo had been the last horse to race at two.  The reference first popped up there in 2004 (though, oddly enough, in a discussion about Funny Cide, not Song of the Sword).  A 2005 post there, credited to the Associated Press, invoked what we know now as the Curse of Apollo in 2005, citing the following as a historical reason that Greeley’s Galaxy couldn’t win:

“The last Derby winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882. Greeley’s Galaxy didn’t make his first start until January of this year.”

The next year, Sports Illustrated mentioned in an online photo gallery that Showing Up had not raced at two, but balanced that out with references to his impressive victory in the Lexington, and the top class of his connections.  Yet, even though Showing Up entered the Derby undefeated, comparably few words that Derby season were spent on the 26/1 shot — after all, Lael Stables also owned Barbaro.

Apollo surged to the forefront the next year, when Curlin ran in the Derby.  A thread on Pace Advantage entitled “Curlin ‘Up Against It,” stated on April 30, 2007, leads with the sentences:

“Curlin did not race at 2. No horse has won the Derby without racing at 2 since 1882.”

A post the next day in that thread cites an article from the now-defunct Thoroughbred Times that proclaims 2-year-old racing to be “virtually a prerequisite” to win the Derby, and mentions no horse since Apollo has won the Derby without running at two.  An Associated Press piece by Richard Rosenblatt also mentions the Apollo stat in the context of Curlin — though perplexingly refers to the comparably recent Breeders’ Cup and 2-year-old woes that Street Sense would try to buck as “two of the Derby’s longest jinxes.”  After Curlin failed to match Apollo’s feat, the first paragraph of a Kentucky Derby recap on horse-races.net referred to Curlin “trying to overcome another jinx.”

Rules, Jinxes, and Curses

Apollo references gained steam in 2009, mainly in the context of eventual 5/1 shot Dunkirk, although it was 43/1 Summer Bird who ended up performing better, between the two contenders unraced at two.  References to the 1882 Derby winner began to permeate the blogosphere.  Robert Lee, blogging for the Albany Times-Union, dismissed the trend against unraced 2-year-olds (without naming Apollo specifically) and picked Dunkirk.  “Jim the Tolerable,” at Full of Run, proclaimed “the one rule we keep hearing over and over is that no horse has won the Derby with zero starts as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882” — before spending most of his post discussing how no horse with a stupid name had won the Derby since Hoop Jr. in 1945.  Pace Advantage posters, as they had since the days of Greeley’s Galaxy, trotted out the Apollo statistic.

The year of Dunkirk also brought the first occurrence — or, given the vagaries of private email lists, forums, and web page deletion, the earliest remaining publicly discoverable occurrence — of the phrase “Apollo curse” in the context of horse racing and not Greek mythology.  In his blog Enthusiast of All, Matt Elliott refers to both the “Apollo jinx” and the “Apollo curse” when discussing the pros and cons of Dunkirk.  He acknowledges it as a historical trend, but doesn’t give it make-or-break status; he picked Dunkirk.

In the next two years, Apollo references popped up here and there.  A 2010 guide to Kentucky Derby trends on Hello Race Fans mentioned Apollo, and referred to the need to start as a juvenile as “a fact transformed into a Derby handicapping ‘rule’ over the years.”    The sport’s paper of record gave Apollo some ink in 2011.  In a Daily Racing Form article on March 10, 2011, Jay Hovdey made as sweeping a declaration of the curse since Andrew Beyer in the 1980s.  Wrote Hovdey:

“But there is one big one out there, the Moby-Dick of rules, the one that has stood the test of time. For nearly 130 years, since Apollo in 1882, no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. It will be the last rule to fall, and it’s putting up a hell of a fight.”

The comment came in a preview of the San Felipe Stakes.  The two horses about whom Hovdey was writing, Albergatti and Runflatout, both failed to make the Derby field.  Still, Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Midnight Interlude ensured that Apollo would get some ink closer to the 2011 Kentucky Derby.  Matt Elliott once again referred to “the dreaded Apollo curse” when assessing Midnight Interlude’s Derby chances.  The first horse racing related reference to the Curse of Apollo on Twitter surfaced three days before the 2011 Derby, when @chasingthederby made notes on Midnight Interlude’s chances.

2012: The Curse Becomes Inescapable

I’ll Have Anohter (19) runs down Bodemeister (6) in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, ensuring that the Curse of Apollo would be discussed on Twitter for at least another year. (kyngpao on Flickr, licensed CC BY 2.0)

Discussion of the lack of Derby wins by unraced 2-year-olds has flowed strongest when a horse fitting that profile is a Derby favorite.  That happened on the scale of print media in 1982 with Air Forbes Won — and it happened on Internet scale in 2012, the year Bodemeister went off the chalk in the Kentucky Derby. Other phrasings were used that year, too.  Steven Crist of the Daily Racing Form referred to a Derby winner having run at two as “the grandaddy of Derby rules,” a passage that the Kentucky Derby media guide still quotes.  Jeff Siegel, then of HRTV, publicized a segment about the Apollo jinx.

But 2012 was when the “curse” phrasing went from sporadic reference to ubiquitous maxim.  Once Bodemeister crossed the wire in the 2012 Arkansas Derby, it gained steam.  Both @TalkRacingToMe and @stevejPS referenced the Curse on April 14, the day of the race.  @Evildoer_Esq mentioned it the next day.

Then the phrase “Curse of Apollo” made it into a Daily Racing Form blog post written by Steven Crist.  He wrote:

“At this point in his career, Bodemeister is reminiscent of another Arkansas Derby winner who did not make his racing debut until January: Curlin, who won the 2007 Arkansas Derby by 10 1/2 lengths with a 105 BSF in just his third career start. No, Curlin did not win the Derby, finishing third and keeping the Curse of Apollo alive — no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. Curlin did, however, go on to win that year’s Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year title.”

The blog post is undated, but based on its content it was written after the Arkansas Derby, and it was linked on Twitter as early as April 16.  From there, it picked up some Twitter traction.  Even Ahmed Zayat, Bodemeister’s owner, mentioned it there.  It also appeared in the blogosphere with more frequency than in previous years: an April 20 look at statistics related to unraced 2-year-olds in the Derby on Ahead By Three, a reader letter to the DRF blog that was published on April 27, and, of course, on early adopter Matt Elliott’s Kentucky Derby preview on May 4.  The Curse of Apollo got its first few mentions on public posts on Facebook in 2012, as well: a post on the Kentucky Derby Digest page on April 30, as well as a mention on The Giddyap Girls page on May 7, just after the race was over.  The “Curse” terminology had stuck, and since then, it has become almost a stock phrase when discussing the Derby chances of horses who didn’t race at two.

Does the Curse of Apollo matter in a handicapping sense?  Handicappers will argue that until the Kentucky Derby — and for at least another year, as long as neither Justify nor Magnum Moon wins on Saturday.  But now you know the history of the term, and how it’s a social media-friendly packaging for an idea that has been bobbing in and out of the Derby picture for decades.

We’re Off!

Racing Has a Word for It

One of the many charms of horse racing — if you’re a certain kind of nerd — is that the game has its own lingo. Follow racing, and you’ll hear about horses finishing in the money and or as an also-ran, handicappers talking about favorites and the morning line, a starter described as on the muscle or dismissed as washy. If you write about horse racing, you’ve probably asked yourself at least once if it’s longshot (yes, if you’re writing for the Daily Racing Form) or long shot (the official AP Stylebook stance).

It wasn’t so long ago that local newspapers kept a reporter on the turf beat and thousands of people crowded racetracks even on weekdays. Now? Well, let’s just say that local newspapers are going the way of a lot of local racetracks and that more of us are enjoying racing online and across borders. That’s why we created this site. It’s meant to be a resource, a place to look up unfamiliar terms and odd phrases and learn the history of the words we use to tell each other stories about the sport, whether you’re a writer, a reader, or just curious. Our perspective isn’t prescriptive — we’re a guide to the language of horse racing and the conventions of covering it.

Join us! We’re developing a style and usage guide (primarily covering North American Thoroughbred racing to start). Please get in touch if you’re interested in contributing to the guide, or if you have a turf style question. Email us: editors@railbirdstyle.com. Or find us on Twitter: @railbirdstyle.