Measuring the major Kentucky Derby preps, 1952 – 2009

Feb 25th 2010 07:55 pm |

Like many race fans at this time of year, I am beginning to show symptoms of Derby fever. Unfortunately, we are still a few months away, so to whittle away some time before then, I decided to do a little project. I am not much of a numbers guy but sometimes you just can’t avoid numbers if you are trying to gain a better understanding of a particular subject.

The question that sparked this article was a simple one: How major are the major Derby preps?  In other words, how can you express, in raw numbers, the influence of the Bluegrass Stakes, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, and Santa Anita Derby on the outcome of the Kentucky Derby? What I decided to do was start in 1952 – the first year of the Florida Derby – and focus on the top three finishers in those four races and see how they fared on the First Saturday in May.

Since 1952, 46 of 59 winners of the Kentucky Derby finished in the top three in the Bluegrass, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, or Santa Anita Derby. Of those 13 who did not, two finished fourth in the Santa Anita Derby (Giacomo and Charismatic) and one finished fourth in the Blue Grass (Sea Hero). In 1966, Kauai King finished fifth in the Florida Derby prior to winning a three-year-old stake at Bowie in Maryland. That makes it 50 out of 59 who finished in the top five in one of the major preps since 1952.

If we add the Arkansas Derby to the mix, then we can add a few more runners who finished first at Oaklawn (Smarty Jones, Sunny Halo) or second (Lil E Tee, Grindstone).

That leaves us with only five outliers. In 1985, Spend a Buck took the short-lived Jersey road to the Derby in winning the Garden State Stakes and Cherry Hill Mile before winning the roses at Churchill.  In 2002, War Emblem used a win in the Illinois Derby to take the field wire-to-wire in Kentucky. In War Emblem’s Derby year, none of the colts that finished in the top three in the four major preps could manage second or third.  It is fitting in a year when the Illinois Derby produced the Kentucky Derby winner, that the runners from the traditional preps fared so poorly (the only time that has occurred since 1952).

The three runners that remain — Dark Star (1953), Cannonero II (1971), and Mine That Bird (2009) — are among the biggest Derby upsetters ever. Dark Star ran in the Florida Derby but he finished 13th by 16 lengths. He won the Derby Trial just a few days prior to his shocking victory over the undefeated Native Dancer (it would be Native Dancer’s only career loss from 22 starts). Another of the outliers is Mine That Bird. We are all familiar with his story, he finished 4th in the Sunland Derby in New Mexico before winning the Kentucky Derby in 2009. And, finally, we are left with Canonero II, who not only won the Derby but the Preakness too.  Mine that Bird was a surprise but, as far as racing upsets go, nothing compares to Canonero II. How would you have played this one if you were handicapping the 1971 Derby?

Past Performances for Canonero II as they appeared in the Daily Racing Form on Kentucky Derby day in 1971

Immediate throw out, right?  Steve Haskin wrote an outstanding piece about Canonero in 2008 that is a must read for racing fans.  Bill Finley also wrote about Canonero after last year’s Derby.

If you are interested in more details, I put together a spreadsheet in Google docs that includes the top three finishers in each of the four major Derby preps since 1952.


In researching this piece, I used the primary ammo for any racing historian: American Racing Manual, Champions, and the Daily Racing Form archive.

Last weekend marked the beginning of the real Derby prep season with the Southwest, Fountain of Youth, and Risen Star. If you would like to keep current with all of the races leading to this year’s Kentucky Derby, sign up for the Derby prep alerts from Hello Race Fans.


Filed in thoroughbred racing history

6 Responses to “Measuring the major Kentucky Derby preps, 1952 – 2009”

  1. thorobase says:

    What odds was Canonero when he won the Derby?

  2. Kevin says:

    Canonero was park of the mutuel field so he only paid $19.40. What would his odds have been if he were an individual betting interest? Through the roof, no doubt.

  3. Another wonderful piece Kevin…thank you for shining a light on horse racing’s rich and storied past. You do yeoman’s work, and I for one, appreciate! What do you think of the new Venezuelan star?

  4. RG says:

    It doesn’t seem to me that the Bluegrass is a major prep anymore. To close to the Derby? Another prep that is is probably gone is the Stepping Stone. It was 7f a week before the Derby. It came into being after Swaps won a 6f race the week before the Derby in 55 making Tenney look like a genius. Churchill increased the race to 7f and named it the Stepping Stone. I believe Majestic Prince won it before his Derby win.

    Training has changed. Citation had 3 days off between his Derby Trial win and the Derby. That was more than the 2 days he had off before before winning the 2mile Gold Cup at Belmont.

    Thank you for your labors. It is a great memory jogger.

  5. Kevin says:

    Brian: Don’t know anything about Bambera. She certainly would add an interesting dimension to the Apple Blossum. Would love to see her there.

    RG: I think Keeneland’s switch to the synthetic has more to do with it losing some of its stature in the last few years. Street Sense did finish 2nd there in 2002.

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. Valerie says:

    Great stuff (as always), Kevin! Striking (and depressing) how ineffective Wood Memorial winners have been over the past 5-6 years. Also interesting to see how the surface switch for both Keeneland and Santa Anita will affect those preps in the long haul. I’m thinking we may also be witnessing a mini-upheavel in what we consider “traditional” preps, with the Arkansas Derby playing a much bigger role, and so too those races run at casino-enriched tracks like Sunland and Delta Downs.

    Of all the old traditional preps, I miss the Flamingo Stakes most of all 🙁