Racing fans who were not around before the 1980s may find it difficult to appreciate just how much the dynamics of the Kentucky Derby have changed since then and how much more difficult the race is to win since they incorporated the graded earnings and now points system. In fact, today’s Derby bears little resemblance to the Derby of the past.
For those who feel having 20 horses in the field is too much, just remember that back then you never knew how many horses would show up. From 1969 to 1974, for example, you had as many as 23 horses (in 1974) and as few as eight (in 1969). It basically depended on the quality of the competition and the presence of any superstars. For instance, in 1969, Majestic Prince, Top Knight, Arts and Letters, and Dike were so dominant, winning everything in California, Florida, New York, and Kentucky, that only four others dared to challenge them, none of whom had even the slightest chance of winning. The odds on the big four were 7-5, 2-1, 4-1, and 4-1, while the odds on the other four were 28-1, 45-1, 57-1, and 70-1.
In many years, even when they had no standouts, you still had only a half-dozen horses who were considered serious threats, that’s how bad the fields were.
Nowadays, we have 20 horses, all of whom have to qualify to get in the race, meaning you have 19 serious stakes horses to beat. Every horse in the race has won or placed in graded stakes and earned his place in the starting gate.
Just imagine if we had Kentucky Derby fields like we did in the past. To provide an example, I will use only the 1970, ’71, and ’72 runnings of the Derby to illustrate my point.
Here are some of the horses who competed in the Derby during those three years.
Saigon Warrior – Won one of 17 starts, former $7,500 claimer, never even ran in a stakes race.
Royal Leverage – Won one of 10 starts, broke his maiden on March 24 in a $10,000 claiming race, ran in four straight claiming races, and finished seventh, beaten 15 lengths, in an allowance race in his final race before the Derby.
Fourulla – A maiden in four lifetime starts, coming off three maiden defeats and an allowance race defeat.
Big Brown Bear – Won one of 18 starts, ran in eight claiming races, claimed for $15,000 in his only career victory, went into the Derby having finished out of the money in five of his previous six starts.
Majestic Needle – Won two of 21 starts, out of the money in 15 of them, in his two stakes appearances, he was beaten 21 lengths in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and 26 lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes
Our Trade Winds – Won three of 17 starts, finished sixth, beaten 11 lengths in the Arkansas Derby, fell in the Blue Grass Stakes, then finished seventh, beaten 17 lengths, in the Derby Trial Stakes
Pacallo – Won five of 21 starts in Puerto Rico, with two of his wins coming in $8,000 and $10,000 claiming races, in his only start in the U.S., he finished sixth, beaten 11 lengths in a seven-furlong allowance race
Fathom – Won two of 12 starts, never even placed in a stakes, and was coming off a seventh-place finish, beaten 14 lengths, in the Derby Trial.
These are some of the horses Riva Ridge, Canonero, and Dust Commander defeated. Dust Commander, in fact, had run for a $7,500 claiming tag and won the Blue Grass Stakes at odds of 35-1. In his previous stakes appearance, he finished 11th in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at odds of 62-1.
So, think about that the next time you get down on a particular crop of Derby horses. Here we are saying it wouldn’t be a shock to see almost anyone finish in the money or even win this year’s Derby.
When people call the 1970s the golden age of racing, part of that is the major change in the makeup of the Kentucky Derby field. With Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Bold Forbes vs. Honest Pleasure, Seattle Slew, Affirmed vs. Alydar, and Spectacular Bid, the era of the cheap horses in the Derby was pretty much over. The claimers and bad horses disappeared and the fields became more competitive. And as they did, the Triple Crown winners ceased for a wide variety of reasons, one of which was the new philosophy started by Wayne Lukas and Commendable in 2000 to skip the Preakness and lay in wait for the Derby winner in the Belmont Stakes. Once Commendable proved it could be done, other trainers followed suit.
Because the Derby became so much harder to win due to the stiff competition from top to bottom and took more of a toll on horses than in the past, combined with fewer horses coming back in two weeks in Baltimore, we had a number of horses winning the first two legs, only to run into a field of fresher opponents in the Belmont. In the Triple Crown sweeps of the past, the Derby winner had to beat basically the same horses in all three races.
When Citation won the Derby he had only five opponents, with the only real threat being his own stablemate, Coaltown.
For those complaining about having 20 horses in the Derby, how excited would you be if we had six horses or eight horses? Big fields in the Derby go back to 1923 when there were 21 horses. The winner, Zev, had made 12 starts at 2 alone.
This year, the vast majority of the Derby field will go into the race having made six career starts or less. Carry Back had made six starts by April of his 2-year-old year, debuting in a three-furlong race in January. By the time he got to the Derby he had made 27 career starts. Whirlaway had made 23 starts before cruising to a Triple Crown sweep.
Yes, times have changed. The point of all this is just to point out the appreciation we should have for any horse who wins the Kentucky Derby, having to defeat 19 proven graded stakes horses. Yes, some Derby fields are stronger than others, but the bottom line is there are no bad Kentucky Derbys. Just read the list of names above if you want to know what bad really is.