Derby Preps: Starts and Starters

Numbers. They’re only numbers. The variables are too many, the sample too idiosyncratic to be meaningful.  But for the heck of it, following Uncle Mo’s breeze on Saturday afternoon, the value of which I questioned, I went back and looked at a bunch of Derby winners and examined their roads to Louisville, just to see how many times they raced and against how many horses they started.

I started with the last five years and used that as a pattern, trying to use the last five years of each decade as a sample. I ran into trouble, though, with 1959 – 1960, and 1966-70, because the Derby winners in those years weren’t champions and thus their past performances aren’t included in the book of the same name, and their past performances aren’t available through Daily Racing Form or Equibase.

So again: idiosyncratic. Numbers. Lacking in context in a variety of ways. But also interesting in their own way, so have a look. Questions? Comments? Responses? Observations?

Year Horse Number of races as a 3-year-old Total number of opponents Average number of opponents Record
1956 Needles 3 32 11.66 2-1-0
1958 Tim Tam 10 83 9.3 7-1-2
1976 Bold Forbes 5 30 7 3-1-1
1977 Seattle Slew 3 25 6.66 3-0-0
1978 Affirm 4 28 7.25 4-0-0
1979 Spectacular Bid 5 24 5.8 5-0-0
1980 Genuine Risk 3 18 7 2-0-3
1986 Ferdinand 4 27 7.75 1-2-1
1987 Alysheba 3 19 7.33 0-1-1 (DQ’d 1st to 3rd in the Blue Grass
1988 Winning Colors 4 21 6.25 3-1-0
1989 Sunday Silence 3 31 6 3-0-0
1990 Unbridled 4 31 8.75 1-0-2
1996 Grindstone 3 24 9 1-2-1
1997 Silver Charm 3 25 9.33 1-2-0
1998 Real Quiet 3 16 6.66 0-2-0
1999 Charismatic 7 49 8 2-2-0 (placed 1st from 2nd via DQ in a claiming race)
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus 4 28 8 4-0-0
2006 Barbaro 3 32 11.66 3-0-0
2007 Street Sense 2 12 7 1-1-0
2008 Big Brown 2 15 8.5 2-0-0
2009 Mine That Bird 2 17 9.5 0-1-0
2010 Super Saver 13 7.5 0-1-1
Averages 3.72 27.27 7.99

Past performances from Champions (DRF Press, 2004) and courtesy of Daily Racing Form.

Kevin Martin of Colin’s Ghost also writes about the Derby prep season, looking at the preparation of the Triple Crown winners and those who came close.

14 thoughts on “Derby Preps: Starts and Starters

  1. Hey Teresa: I am working on a post somewhat similar to this. Great minds think alike! I’ll be sure to link to this in my post. Good stuff. Kevin

  2. Indeed they do, Kevin! And I’ll link to yours when it’s up. There were so many other variables I wanted to include – two-year-old starts, distances, number of turns, etc. – but I knew I’d bury myself in numbers and had to stop myself. Interested to see your post.

  3. Interesting chart that indicates trainers are using fewer races to prepare their horses for the Derby. I really don’t know why this is happening-soundness might be the reason in some cases. Uncle Mo did win the BC Juvenile and probably has enough race experience as a two year old but still needs to remain fit. In my opinion, since the Breeders Cup began it has taken a toll on young horses. Until Street Sense, a horse who won the BC Juvenile race did not go on to win the roses.

  4. I’ll admit I am surprised that on average, the horses from previous decades didn’t have more starts before the Derby. The other thing that popped out is, other than Barbaro, how few total opponents the most recent Derby winners faced prior to the first Saturday in May.

  5. 18 horses have entered the Churchill Downs starting gates for the Kentucky Derby with undefeated records. Only 6 of those 18 would remain so, after the race – Regret, Morvich, Majestic Prince, Seattle Slew,Smarty Jones, and Big Brown.

    Pletcher is 1 for 28 with his number of Kentucky Derby winners compared to his starters.

    In the last 100 years, 32 favorites won the Kentucky Derby.

  6. The number of 3 year old starts prior to the Derby in the 1970’s compared to the current [2000 on] deserves discussion. Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew were the stars from turfdoms hey- day.. Many of the lessor known horses were formidable. They were still primarily breeding horses for racing in those days.

    From 2000 on the number of starts prior to the Derby is about half. 2 per horse. Why. Today the horses are bred to bring high prices at the sales. Seattle Slew sold for 17500.00 and in today’s market he might not bring as much. Breeders today sell eye candy and hope they can run in their second careers. There are of course notable exceptions.. The Classic bound horse today has about half the racing longevity as the aforementioned, hence half the starts. The attrition rate today is staggering.

    The colt who posted the 9.4 clocking and sold for 400k recently is a notable related point. We probably won’t here from him again. The clocking turned out to be a marketing ploy. History tells us. Athletes [to include horses] who display their full chat when young don’t duplicate when they mature. Trainers tip- toe to the Derby because the horses can’t handle tough training and the main goal is the sale pen at some point.

    People are comparing this Uncle Mo horse to Seattle Slew, even ManOWar. At this point in their careers Seattle Slew’s workouts were more impressive then the Uncle Mo’s 4 races. Slews post first race works were subdued so insiders could collect a bet.

    Teresa, your numbers tell us the focus is money but not racing prize money.

  7. Oops I hit the submit button too soon –

    Barbaro also entered the Churchill Downs starting gates undefeated and remained so after the race.

  8. I was actually surprised that there was so little difference in Derby preps over the years. I don’t know what I expected, but I guess I didn’t expect to see so many of the earlier horses with only three starts.

    Interesting, too, that it’s Charismatic, the claimer, who raced so often before the Derby.

    How awesome was Tim Tam?

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