Paths to the Kentucky Derby since 1990
By Dana Byerly, Hello Race Fans Co-founder

2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom took an unconventional path to the winner's circle (Eclipse Sportswire)

One of the many ongoing discussions during the Kentucky Derby prep season involves speculation about which path the contenders might take. As the most analyzed, scrutinized and handicapped race in North America, it’s a fine tradition to spend far too much time geeking out on the copious amounts of Derby data available. Adding to that, we wanted to a way to easily visualize the paths winners had taken to the Kentucky Derby.

As we’ve noted in our Major Prep Factor post, four races have produced the most winners (Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial) since 1952. But what about the winner’s full path in his 3-year-old season?

In the interactive diagram below we’ve included the path of graded stakes races for Kentucky Derby winners since 1990, winning or losing, in their 3-year-old season. Plenty of Kentucky Derby winners have also made allowance, non-graded stakes, maiden special weight or claiming starts on their way to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle, but in order to keep things simple and legible, we’ve focused our first visualization on graded stakes. We also provide full path for each winner later in the post.

You can hover over or touch each path for a list of horses that took the route. For example, if you hover over the path between the Tropical Park Derby and Fountain of Youth you’ll see that Unbridled took that path in 1990. The widths of the paths are relative to the number of horses that took the path — the wider the path, the more horses that took that path.

A few caveats…
No winner has used the Jerome in the current configuration and no winner has used the Gotham in the time frame, so we’ve omitted them for now. The Florida Derby was in mid-March between 1990-2004, making it more likely to be a second-to-last prep than a last prep for much of this time span. Both here and in the individual path graphics we’ve used the contemporary name of the race. For example, Charismatic won the Santa Catalina in 1999, today that race is known as the Robert B. Lewis.

Also of note, 2019 winner Country House was elevated after first-place finisher Maximum Security was disqualified. Maximum Security’s path to the Derby was unconventional, at least by contemporary standards, in that his first two starts of the year were in Starter Optional Claimer races at Gulfstream Park. He made his final prep by winning the Florida Derby.

The 2020 rendition has been excluded as an outlier given that he reschedule to September drastically altered the prep races.

And finally, when hovering over a path, an asterisk (*) after the horse’s name indicates that he ran a race that was not a graded stakes between the two races. Finish position is not indicated in this chart, but it’s included in each winner’s full 3-year-old path later in the post.

Graded Paths to the Kentucky Derby since 1990
Hover over each path for a list of Derby winners that took that path.

This is a static version!
To view the interactive version, view in a tablet, laptop or desktop.

Individual Paths to the Kentucky Derby
How did each winner end up in Churchill Downs winners’ circle? Select a name to see the winner’s full path. Only the race and the finish position is represented — to keep it legible we didn’t include distance or surface. We’ve added a notes below on winners who ran at sprint distances or over the turf in their 3-year-old races prior to the Kentucky Derby.

This is a static version!
Here’s an example of Unbridled’s path to the Derby.
To view the interactive version, view in a tablet, laptop or desktop.

Looking at each winner’s path over time is an easy way to see how training has changed in the time span. From 2015 to 2006 seven of the 10 winners made only two starts, whereas every winner from 2005 to 1990 made at least three starts. And in that same time span half of the winners made four starts. 1999 winner Charismatic takes the cake for most 3-year-old starts prior to the Derby with a whopping seven, including two allowances and a claiming race! Two of those races were also sprints.

Speaking of unusual paths to the Kentucky Derby, most of the races in each winner’s path were the conventional mile or further on the dirt. But in a few instances winners either had a prep on turf or at 7 furlongs or shorter. Given that 2015 Juvenile Champion and Kentucky Derby hopeful Nyquist kicked off his 3-year-old campaign with a win in the 7 furlong San Vicente, it seemed worth noting how many winners had used either a sprint or a turf race as a prep:

Prior to the 2016 Derby, a reader noted that Derby winners who started at 7 furlongs or below had three more starts prior to the Derby in the time frame. In fact five of the six had four starts while one, Silver Charm, had three starts. Nyquist put a new spin on that approach with a win in the 7 furlong San Vicente and only one more prep. Will he be an anomaly or a part of a burgeoning trend? Only time will tell, but in the meantime it’s now a little easier to view the paths winners have taken.

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One comment

  • Awesome visualization, love this way to sow the Road to the Derby…would be interested to see how Place and Show work in too.

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