Kentucky Derby week is finally here, and that means it’s time to pore over the past performances, sift through the backside buzz from Churchill Downs, cue up the video replays from this year’s prep races and settle in on your picks for Saturday.
As Derby Day approaches, here are some recent trends and statistics to keep in mind when handicapping this year’s race.
That No. 1 post position
The pomp and circumstance surrounding Wednesday’s Derby draw — and the in-depth analysis that always follows — is a little overblown, but one thing that isn’t embellished is the bad luck of landing the No. 1 post position.
It’s been 31 years since a winner has come out of the inside-most post. That was Ferdinand in 1986, and he was the first one to do it since 1963.
Risen Star finished third in 1988, and he remains the last horse to hit the board from the No. 1 post. He also went on to defeat Derby winner Winning Colors in the Preakness, then won the Belmont Stakes by 14¾ lengths.
Five of the last six Derby runners to break from the inside post have finished 14th or worse, and two of those finished in last place.
Lookin at Lucky is the best recent example of the misfortune that can befall whoever breaks from post No. 1. He remained the betting favorite seven years ago despite that position, and he was beat up right out of the gate, ultimately finishing sixth.
“I quit watching him after the first bump,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He was done.”
Lookin at Lucky won the Preakness two weeks later.
▪ It’s actually been longer since a horse won the Derby from the No. 2 post position. Affirmed did it in 1978, and no one has done it since. Five horses have hit the board from the No. 2 position in the last 11 years, however.
▪ The No. 17 post is the only one that has never produced a Derby winner. Thirty-eight horses have tried and failed from that spot since the starting gate was first used in 1930. Forty Niner (1988) is the only runner-up from the No. 17 post.
Lexington to Louisville
Strike the Gold won the Kentucky Derby in 1991, and he remains the last Blue Grass Stakes winner to wear the roses on Derby Day.
Six of the last seven horses to win the Derby after running in the Blue Grass actually failed in their attempt at Keeneland’s signature prep. Street Sense (2007), Thunder Gulch (1995), Sea Hero (1993), Unbridled (1990), Alysheba (1987) and Gato Del Sol (1982) all ran in the Blue Grass and lost, then won the Derby.
The top five finishers in this year’s Blue Grass Stakes are all expected to be in the Derby. They are, in order of finish: Irap, Practical Joke, McCraken, J Boys Echo and Tapwrit.
▪ No Wood Memorial runners have won the Derby since Wood runner-up Funny Cide in 2003, which is also the last year that a Wood runner hit the board on Derby Day. This year’s Derby is expected to feature only one of this year’s Wood Memorial runners: the winner, Irish War Cry.
▪ Only two Louisiana Derby winners have ever won the Kentucky Derby: Grindstone in 1996 and Black Gold in 1924. Girvin won this year’s Louisiana Derby.
In a recent change, eight of the last 10 Derby winners have had only two prep races as 3-year-olds. Street Sense started that trend in 2007, becoming the first since Sunny’s Halo in 1983 to win the Derby off of two prep races at age 3. Sunny’s Halo was the first to do it since Jet Pilot in 1947.
The horses who are expected to be in this year’s field and have raced only twice as 3-year-olds: Classic Empire, Thunder Snow, Practical Joke, Fast and Accurate, and McCraken.
Fourteen of the last 15 Kentucky Derby winners broke their maiden in either their first or second career start. (Orb needed four starts to claim his first victory).
This year’s field includes several starters who needed more than two races to get their first victory: Irap (broke maiden in eighth race), State of Honor (fifth race), Hence (fourth race), Fast and Accurate (fourth race), Always Dreaming (third race) and Gunnevera (third race). Sonneteer remains winless in 10 career races.
Royal Mo and Local Hero, who each won their third career race, are just outside the Derby Top 20 heading into the week.
The favorite never wins?
For 20 straight Kentucky Derbys — from 1980 to 1999 — that was the trend. The failed favorites in that span included the likes of Easy Goer, Arazi and Holy Bull, before Fusaichi Pegasus won in 2000 at 2-1 odds and made it OK to be favored again.
The last four Kentucky Derby favorites — Nyquist, American Pharoah, California Chrome and Orb — and six of the last 10 have all ended up in the winner’s circle.
That’s the good news for this year’s betting favorite, which is likely to be Classic Empire or Always Dreaming.
The bad news? The last time the Derby favorite was also the Derby winner in five consecutive years was in 1896.
Post time: 6:34 p.m.
Where: Churchill Downs
Kentucky Derby leaderboard
Irish War Cry
Saeed bin Suroor
J Boys Echo
State of Honor
Fast and Accurate
Battle of Midway
Lookin At Lee