The Derby Road Most Traveled

Courtesy of Becky Johnston

Over the last 25 years, Kentucky Derby winners have finished their last prep race with an average placing of 1.96 (if you factor in Alysheba’s finish before his subsequent disqualifcation that figures drops to 1.88). 

No Derby winner has finished worse than fourth in their prior start in that same time period, with only Sea Hero and Thunder Gulch’s fourth place finishes in the Blue Grass Stakes and Giacomo’s fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.  The others finished in the top three in their last race.

The place and show positions give us a dead-even 2.2 placing for their last prep race with only five horses out of 50 finishing worse than fifth.

The Preps

Arkansas Derby

The Arkansas Derby winner has duplicated the feat on the first Saturday in May only once since 1984.  Smarty Jones accomplished the task in 2004.  Second place finishers Lil E Tee (1992) and Grindstone (1996) went on to win the roses.

1992 Arkansas Derby

Smarty Jones and Grindstone would not race past the Triple Crown, but the recently deceased Lil E Tee returned to Oaklawn Park as a four-year-old to win the Razorback and finish second to Jovial in the 1993 Oaklawn Handicap.

Of the three winners, only Smarty Jones would win the divisional honors at the end of the year.

Smarty Jones 2004 Arkansas Derby

Then there are the Derby runner-ups that prepped with a win in Hot Springs. They include second-placed Victory Gallop (1998), the Cryptoclearance colt would save his best effort for an upset of potential triple crown winner Real Quiet in the Belmont Stakes. Victory Gallop raced into his four year old season with a third place showing in the Dubai World Cup and wins in the Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicap.

Afleet Alex also ran third in the Derby after winning the Arkansas classic, but after that loss, the colt won the remaining two legs of the triple crown in dramatic fashion.  The Preakness win was stunning for the colt’s sheer athleticism and the Belmont was simply stylish with an almost effortless victory.   Afleet Alex did not race past the triple crown, but his efforts in the first half of the year were enough to earn him the divisional honor. 

Afleet Alex’ 2005 Arkansas Derby

Blumin Affair (1994), Impeachment (2000), and Steppenwolfer (2006) also collected placings in both Arkansas and Kentucky.

Curlin (2007) was far and away the best in Hot Springs, but he met an awfully nice field when he got to Kentucky and managed to finished a troubled third.  He won the Preakness and ran second to the blue-blooded filly Rags to Richs in the Belmont.  Curlin would finish the year with a win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and secure his spot not only as three-year-old champion, but Horse of the Year.  He would duplicate with dual honors as a four-year-old in 2008.

Arkansas provided nine starters that hit the board in the last 25 years.  That is a 12% ratio out of the 75 horses completing the trifectas.

Blue Grass Stakes 

The Blue Grass Stakes outpaces the Santa Anita Derby with the most placings, 20 versus 15, but if you throw in the Lexington Stakes, you get another nine horses th at hit the board on Derby Day coming from Keeneland.

Amazingly, with the big number, the Blue Grass winner has only duplicated that effort once in the last 25 years on Derby Day and that was Strike the Gold (1991).  The recently deceased Alysheba (1987) could have conceivably been another one, but he was disqualified from the win to third place for interference.

Alysheba’s 1987 Kentucky Derby stretch run

It is the Blue Grass runners-up who towed the weight of wearing the roses in five other years.  Alysheba mentioned above, Unbridled (1990 3rd), Sea Hero (1993 4th), Thunder Gulch (1995 4th), and Street Sense (2007 2nd).

Street Sense’s 2007 Blue Grass Stakes

Unbridled, Thunder Gulch and Alysheba were all named three-year-old champions and both Unbridled and Alysheba would win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the former as a three-year-old and the latter as a four-year-old.

The Derby tri-fillers that also won the Blue Grass Stakes were Chief’s Crown (1985 3rd), Summer Squall (1990 2nd), Prairie Bayou (1993 2nd), Menifee (1999 2nd), and Peace Rules (2003 3rd). 

Bold Arrangement (1986), Avie’s Copy (1987), Dance Floor (1992), Tejano Road (1995), Cat Thief (1999), Invisible Ink (2001), Lion Heart (2004), Closing Argument (2005), and  Bluegrass Cat (2006) managed to turn their appearances in the Blue Grass into top three spots on Derby Day. 

Only Alysheba would add Horse of the Year to his resume in 1988 as a four-year-old.  The Blue Grass Stakes’ 20 placings give them a 27% ratio of the 75 total.

Lexington Stakes

The Lexington Stakes from Keeneland has been productive in the Kentucky Derby.  Charismatic (1999) is the lone winner of both during this period, but the Lexington would give us one of the most popular Derby winners, Swale.  He finished second in 1984 prep, but won the Derby and the Belmont before suffering his heartbreaking collapse and death.

Other runners who hit the board at Churchill on the first Saturday in May are second place finishers Stephan’s Odyssey (1985 2nd) and Forty Niner (1988 2nd).  Lexington winners Risen Star (1988) and Proud Citizen (2002) finished third and second respectively.

1988 Risen Star and Forty Niner’s Lexington Stakes

Pleasant Tap (1990) maintained his third place finish in both events while Wild Gale (1993) improved his fifth place finish  to a third in the Derby.  Prince of Thieves (1996) went from second in the Lexington to a third place finish in Louisville.

Swale and Risen Star won their divisional honors in their respective years and Charismatic won both three-year-old honors and Horse of the Year.  Pleasant Tap won older horse honors in 1992.

The Lexington has produced nine horses to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby for a 12% ratio.

Santa Anita Derby

The other heavy hitter in this 25 year span has been this California fixture.  Winning Colors (1988) and Sunday Silence (1989) gave the western stake back to back Derby winners after both won the Santa Anita Derby.  Winning Colors was only the third filly to ever win the Kentucky Derby (Regret and Genuine Risk).  

Winning Colors’ 1988 Santa Anita Derby

Sunday Silence 1989 Santa Anita Derby

Other Santa Anita Derby runners that saved their winning for Kentucky were Ferdinand (1987 3rd), Silver Charm (1997 2nd), Real Quiet (1998 2nd), and Giacomo (2005, 4th).

Free House and Silver Charm in the 1997 Santa Anita Derby

Santa Anita Derby winners Cavonnier (1996) Free House (1997) and Indian Charlie (1998) hit the Derby board.  Cavonnnier was a desperate nose short in second and Free House and Indian Charlie ran very good thirds. 

Best Pal (1991) was second in both races while Casual Lies (1992), and Strodes Creek (1994) advanced from third place finishes to second.  Imperialism (2004) was elevated to second from third in the Sanita Anita Derby after the disqualification of Rock Hard Ten and the gray colt ran third on Derby Day behind Smarty Jones.  Mane Minister (1991) and Timber County (1995) moved from fourth in California to third in Kentucky.

The Santa Anita Derby has produced 15 placings in the 25 years giving them a 20% stirike rate.

Wood Memorial

The Aqueduct showpiece is another race that has made their presence felt in Kentucky.  While they only account for one dual winner, Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), their second place finishers have advanced to the winning position three times Go For Gin (1994), Monarchos (2001) and Funny Cide (2003).

Funny Cide and Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood Memorial

Wood winners that have hit the board include Broad Brush (1986 3rd), Easy Goer (1989 2nd), Captain Bodgit (1997 2nd), Empire Maker (2003 2nd) and Congaree (2001 3rd).

Aptitude ran second in the Derby and finished third in the Wood in 2000.

Funny Cide was named three-year-old champion.

The Wood Memorial as a final prep has resulted in 10 top three spots in 25 years or 13%.

The rest

The Florida Derby as a final prep has produced two of the last three winners, Barbaro (2006) and Big Brown (2008).  Bet Twice also prepped for his runner-up effort in the Derby with a fifth place finish in 1987.

Barbaro’s 2006 Florida Derby

Big Brown was named three-year-old champion in 2008.

The Illinois Derby gave us the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner and three-year-old champ War Emblem.  Denis of Cork finished third in last year’s Derby after running fifth in the Illinois Derby.

War Emblem’s 2002 Illinois Derby

The Jim Beam provided the two-three finishers in 1984 Kentucky Derby with Coax Me Chad and At The Threshold .  The re-branded Lane’s End Stakes produced two winners Perfect Drift (2002) and Hard Spun (2007).  They would run third and second respectively in their Derby years.

Hard Spun’s 2007 Lane’s End

Hialeah’s Flamingo Stakes gave us third place Awe Inspiring (1989) and the Garden State Stakes winner duplicated that effort in Kentucky when Spend a Buck (1985) took the roses.  He was also named three-year-old champion.

Awe Inspiring’s 1989 Flamingo Stakes

The Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn was the prep of choice for the lovely but ill-fated filly Eight Belles.  She ran a gutsy second to Big Brown last year at Churchill Downs.

The other tracks represented 12 of the 75 top three Derby finishers, 16%.

Certainly there are more Florida Derby winners that went on to win the Kentucky Derby but used another prep race prior to the Derby, the same with the Tampa Bay Derby, Jim Beam/Lane’s End, Louisiana Derby, but for simplicity sake I went with only the last race prior to the Derby.

What all this boils down to is that ten horses won their final prep race, nine finished second, three finished third and another three finished fourth.  76% of the time the Derby winner will have run first or second in their last prep race, regardless of where they have run.

They are broken down this way:
Arkansas Derby three winners (last race = one win, two seconds) in the Derby top three - 12%
Blue Grass Stakes six winners (last race = one win, one second, two thirds, and two fourths) in the Derby top three - 27%
Santa Anita Derby six winners (last race = two firsts, two seconds, one third and one fourth) in the Derby top three - 20%
Wood Memorial Stakes  four winners (last race = one first, three seconds) in the Derby top three - 13%
Other races (including the Lexington) six winners (last race = five winners, one second)  in the Derby top three (21 times) - 28%

With synthetic surfaces in mind, let’s not forget what is important and that20is the horse’s prior form and how the horse is coming into the race.  The last three Derby winners have come from one synthetic surface (21 day rest) and two from traditional dirt surfaces (35 day rest), so let all of us handicappers that have seen the past 25 runnings of the Kentucky Derby raise our right hand and vow that if we don’t pick the winner on the first Saturday in May we will not blame synethetic surfaces on our lack of handicapping ability.  I do.

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