Seasoning and Experience Have Not Lost Their Hold on the Kentucky Derby

By Dick Downey

In the past few years, much discussion has centered around the chances of a "lightly-raced horse" winning the Kentucky Derby. But in fact, the talk has not come to much fruition. Truth holds eternal, and although there are exceptions to every rule, the truth is that it still takes seasoning and experience to win the Kentucky Derby the vast majority of the time.

In reviewing our study of the past 31 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, we can't help but notice that 29 of the winners have had at least six lifetime starts. The two that didn't--Grindstone (1996) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000)--each had five. A horse with at least six prior starts is not, in Kentucky Derby parlance, a lightly raced horse. A horse with five or fewer prior starts is.

Aside from Grindstone and "FuPeg", in the last 10 runnings, Funny Cide (2003) had six career starts, War Emblem (2002) had seven, Monarchos (2001) had six, Charismatic (1999) had 14, Real Quiet (1998) had 12, Silver Charm (1997) had six, Thunder Gulch (1995) had nine, and Go For Gin (1994) had nine.

Whether by happenstance or choice--and we think it's choice since the great majority of owners and trainers put their horses ahead of their own egos--the importance of seasoning is realized before the entries to the Derby are made. In the past 31 years, 87.5% of Kentucky Derby starters have raced at least six times prior to entering the Derby starting gate.

While career experience is a factor in our study, three-year-old experience is the single most potent factor in The Downey Profile 31-year study.. Specifically, the horse must not have too little--or too much.

In the past 31 years, 27 winners have raced either three or four times at age three. Only one of the remaining four winners--Sunny's Halo (1983)--had only two starts as a sophomore. The other three--Bold Forbes (1976), Spectacular Bid (1979) and Charismatic (1999)--had more than four prior starts at age three. In this day and age of lightly-raced Derby horses, Charismatic had an amazing seven prior starts at age three in 1999. Bold Forbes and 'Bid each had five.

The right amount of three-year-old experience is not recognized by owners and trainers nearly as much as is career experience. In the past 31 years, 48% of all Derby starters have not met the "either-three-or-four-starts-at age-three" factor. Yet 87% of winners have had this factor.

Since you can do the math, you can see that in the past 20 runnings, only one winner, Charismatic, has deviated from the rule that the horse must have either three or four starts at age three prior to the Kentucky Derby.

The moral of the story is one that we all recognize--it takes just a few owners and/or trainers with an inordinate amount of Derby Fever to fill the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May. They enter without regard to history, trends, or even, in many cases, ability of their charges to get 1 1/4 mile.

But the lesson to be learned, if you play the percentages, is to look for a horse with the right and sufficient amount of seasoning and experience to win the Kentucky Derby.