This Year’s Derby Horses Bring Added Experience

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Looking at the number of starts in the past performances for horses entered in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), one half expects to see Real Quiet or Thunder Gulch listed among the runners.

In terms of starts ahead of the Derby for this year's 3-year-olds, pushing the race back four months seemingly has pushed the classic back a few decades. With those added months to get some races under their belts, the average number of races for the 18 horses entered is 7.4.

In 2019, when the Derby was conducted in its usual first Saturday in May slot, the 19 horses who started the race had made just 5.6 starts--nearly two starts fewer than the average for this year's field. Only three horses in the 2019 field had more than seven starts going into the Derby: War of Will, Long Range Toddy, and Gray Magician.

Of course, the increased average this year is attributable to the race date being pushed to September. As 2-year-olds have not been making their debuts until later in the calendar year--if racing at all as juveniles--and horses are having their starts more spaced out, Derby runners are entering the 1 1/4-mile test with fewer starts under their belt.

From 2000-19, the Derby winners averaged six pre-race starts, and only two of those winners, California Chrome with 10 races ahead of his 2014 win and Mine That Bird with eight races before his 2009 upset, had raced more than seven times.

The added experience of this year's field reminds us that it wasn't that long ago when horses had more races under their belts when they lined up at Churchill Downs. If you go back just one more decade from the 20 years examined above to 1990-99, four of the Derby winners started 10 or more times, and the average winner had nine previous starts. Leading the way was Charismatic, who started 14 times before closing the decade with an upset Derby win.

Leading the way in starts in this year's field is South Bend, who has made a dozen, including 10 stakes and five starts on turf. He exits a fourth-place finish to winner Tiz the Law in the Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1), which marked his first start for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. Before that effort, he was trained by Stanley Hough and raced for different owners.

Other horses in this year's Derby with more than seven starts are grade 1-placed Finnick the Fierce, grade 3 winner Enforceable (10 starts), champion 2-year-old male Storm the Court (nine), grade 3-placed Necker Island (10), grade 3-placed Attachment Rate (eight), longshot Winning Impression (nine), and grade 1-placed Ny Traffic (nine).

Morning-line favorite Tiz the Law, the winner of the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1) and three other grade 1s, has raced seven times.

(This blog originally ran in BloodHorse Daily.)

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