How to Find the Kentucky Derby Winner

Over the last eighteen years, colts that have been victorious in the Kentucky Derby have followed a fairly specific training pattern.

The majority of Derby winners from 2000-2017 won their maiden between September and October. There are five exceptions. California Chrome and Nyquist were precocious youngsters, winning in April and May, respectively; Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos and Always Dreaming didn’t win their maiden race until January of their three-year-old season, although they did start as two-year-olds. A dozen Kentucky Derby winners competed in a stakes race as a two-year-old, eight in graded stakes. Five won a graded stakes as a juvenile.

Breeders’ Cup Jinx

The winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is normally installed as the future betting favorite for the Kentucky Derby.  Avoid this horse like the plague.  The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has almost no bearing on the Kentucky Derby. Only three Kentucky Derby winners in eighteen years have even competed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.  Street Sense and Nyquist both won the Juvenile and Mine That Bird finished an undistinguished twelfth.

Last year’s Juvenile champ, Classic Empire, gave it a good shot and placed fourth in the Kentucky Derby after a rough trip. Perhaps this year’s Breeders’ Cup Hero Good Magic will add his name to the exclusive list of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile/Kentucky Derby champs… but I wouldn’t take a short price on it.

Prep Races

All but five of the last twenty Derby champs started their three-year-old season in January or February. Before 2007, our heroes participated in three or four preps before the big race.  All of this changed dramatically in 2007 when Street Sense didn’t start his three-year-old campaign until March and had only two prep races. Seven of the last ten Kentucky Derby winners followed in the hoof prints of Street Sense, participating in just two races before heading to the winner’s circle in the Kentucky Derby.  Orb, California Chrome and Always Dreaming are the only Kentucky Derby winners who made three starts before the Kentucky Derby.

All Kentucky Derby winners in the last eighteen years had a 1 1/8-mile prep as their final start before entering the Derby starting gate. Only four — Funny Cide, Giacomo, Street Sense and Mine That Bird — didn’t win their last prep.

The most popular route to the Kentucky Derby is through Florida. Six of the last eighteen Kentucky Derby champs won their Sunshine State prep. Santa Anita and Arkansas are popular places to complete preparations before heading to Churchill as well.  A trio from each track have worn the roses.

The Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes have seen better days. Only two colts went to Kentucky by way of New York, and only one prepped at Keeneland (over the old Polytrack surface). Now that Keeneland has a dirt main track again, perhaps we’ll see the Blue Grass return to its former glory.

Three colts took the scenic route to Churchill by way of the Illinois Derby (War Emblem), Sunland Derby (Mine That Bird) and Spiral Stakes (Animal Kingdom).

Qualifying Points

The playing field changed further in 2013 with the inception of the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” point system.  Points are awarded to the first four finishers of designated stakes races. Originally, thirty-four races were included in the series, starting in September with the Iroquois Stakes and ending in mid-April with the Lexington Stakes.

The system was revamped this year targeting international interest. Now, a total of 45 events are carded between 2017-18. Thirty-five races across the U.S., seven for the Europeans, three for Japanese horses. The UAE Derby is listed as a U.S. qualifier. Go figure.

A total of 15 Kentucky Derby Qualifying races are scheduled for the two-year-old contingent. Nine for the U.S.-based runners, four for European-based horse and two for Japanese-based animals.

Many have said that juvenile form has little bearing on the Triple Crown trail. The babies are growing physically and mentally. The late bloomers start figuring things out while the precocious two-year-olds falter at longer distances.

The last five years of qualifying races proves this theory.  17 of the 20 top four finishers in the Kentucky Derby from 2013 to 2017 earned ten or fewer points in the juvenile races. There’s always the exception, of course — hey, that’s horse racing.

Here’s the lowdown:


1st  – Always Dreaming (0 points)
2nd – Lookin At Lee (8 points)
3rd – Battle of Midway (0 points)
4th – Classic Empire (30 points)


1st  – Nyquist (30 points)
2nd – Exaggerator (20 points)
3rd  – Gun Runner (0 points)
4th  – Mohaymen (10 points)


1st  – American Pharoah (10 points)
2nd – Firing Line (4 points
3rd – Dortmund (10 points)
4th – Frosted (4 points)


1st  – California Chrome (0 points)
2nd – Commanding Curve (0 points)
3rd  – Danza (0 points)
4th  – Wicked Strong (2 points)


1st  – Orb (0 points)
2nd – Golden Soul (0 points)
3rd  – Revolutionary (0 points)
4th  – Normandy Invasion (4 points)

The top two-year-old point holders of 2013 and 2014 were nowhere to be found. The 2015 juvenile points leader Texas Red had to skip the Triple Crown due to injury. Eclipse Award winner Nyquist and his rival Exaggerator held their juvenile form through the Triple Crown preps, and honorable mention goes to the tenacious 2016 Two-Year-Old Cham Classic Empire.

Now we know the parameters for finding a Kentucky Derby winner.  We’re looking for a colt who won its maiden race between September and November and who may have participated in a stakes race as a two-year-old, but not necessarily one of the designated Derby prep races.  Our hero will likely make only two or three starts as a three-year-old, and will win either the Florida Derby, the Santa Anita Derby or the Arkansas Derby.

Wake me up in March.

Year Horse Maiden Win  2YO Record BC Stakes Races Graded Stakes 3YO Debut 1st 3YO Race Derby Preps Last Prep Finish
2017 Always Dreaming 1/25/17 2-0-1-1 No 0 0 1/25/17 Maiden 3 FL Derby 1st
2016 Nyquist 6/5/15 5-5-0-0 Yes 4-4-0-0 4-4-0-0 2/15/16 San Vicente 2 FL Derby 1st
2015 American Pharoah 8/9/14 3-2-0-0 No 2-2-0-0 2-2-0-0 3/14/15 Rebel Stakes 2 AK Derby 1st
2014 California Chrome 4/26/13 7-3-1-0 No 5-2-0-0 1-0-0-0 1/25/14 Cal Cup Derby 3 SA Derby 1st
2013 Orb 11/24/12 4-1-0-1 No 0 0 1/26/13 Allowance 3 FL Derby 1st
2012 I’ll Have Another 7/3/11 3-1-1-0 No 2-0-1-0 2-0-1-0 2/4/12 RB Lewis 2 SA Derby 1st
2011 Animal Kingdom 10/23/10 2-1-1-0 No 0 0 3/3/11 Allowance 2 Spiral Stakes 1st
2010 Super Saver 9/11/09 4-2-1-0 No 2-1-0-0 2-1-0-0 3/13/10 Tampa Bay Derby 2 AK Derby 1st
2009 Mine That Bird 8/4/08 6-4-0-0 12th 4-3-0-0 2-1-0-0 2/28/09 Borderland Derby 2 Sunland Derby 4th
2008 Big Brown 9/3/07 1-1-0-0 No 0 0 3/5/08 Allowance 2 FL Derby 1st
2007 Street Sense 8/19/06 5-2-1-2 1 3-1-0-2 3-1-0-2 3/17/07 Tampa Bay Derby 2 Bluegrass Stakes 2nd
2006 Barbaro 10/4/05 2-2-0-0 No 1-0-0-0 0 1/1/06 Tropical Park Derby 3 FL Derby 1st
2005 Giacomo 10/22/04 4-1-1-1 No 1-0-1-0 1-0-1-0 2/5/05 Sham Stakes 3 SA Derby 4th
2004 Smarty Jones 11/9/03 2-2-0-0 No 1-1-0-0 0 1/3/04 Count Fleet S. 4 AK Derby 1st
2003 Funny Cide 9/8/02 3-3-0-0 No 2-2-0-0 0 1/18/03 Holy Bull 3 Wood Memorial 2nd
2002 War Emblem 10/4/01 3-2-0-0 No 0 0 1/26/02 Le Comte 4 Illinois Derby 1st
2001 Monarchos 1/13/01 2-0-0-1 No 0 0 1/13/01 Maiden 4 FL Derby 1st
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus 1/2/00 1-0-1-0 No 0 0 1/2/00 Maiden 4 Wood Memorial 1st


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