The First Saturday in September: What Difference Will Four Months Make?

April 5, 2020

This Labor Day weekend, as we honor the contributions of hard-working Americans, horse racing enthusiasts are now hoping to have another reason to celebrate: the Kentucky Derby has been rescheduled to run over that same weekend due to the worldwide spread of the coronavirus.  Unlike most other horse races since the outbreak, it was decided that it wouldn’t be right to hold America’s most famous horse race without fans. Fans the world over are now routing for a worldwide recovery that enables a return of wellness, community and economic stability, and if we are lucky, a run for the roses. 

I have long stood by the assertion that handicapping the Kentucky Derby under normal circumstances is different from handicapping any other race. Being under government-ordered quarantine these past few weeks, I’ve had time to consider how a September Kentucky Derby might differ from its usual May run. Below are some factors I’ve been analyzing.  Note: Though a small sample size, I’ve opted to limit my analysis period back only to 2013 and the beginning of the new points system to give as accurate a representation of how the races have recently run. 

 A Possibly Predictive Race?

To better understand how a September Derby might look this year, it could be helpful to look at another comparable race: Saratoga’s Travers Stakes which is run in late-August. Otherwise known as the Midsummer Derby, as its nickname suggests it is also 10 furlongs and features 3-year old colts, some of which have also run earlier in the year in the Kentucky Derby.  The figure below highlights what a difference four months has made in the past seven years for horses that ran in both races. Some horses improve or maintain their winning performance, but the majority do not.

YearHorseKentucky Derby FinishTravers Finish
2013Orb1st3rd
Golden Soul2nd8th
2014Commanding Curve2nd9th
2015American Pharoah1st 2nd 
Keen Ice7th1st
2016Exaggerator2nd11th
2017Always Dreaming1st9th
Lookin at Lee2nd10th
Cloud Computing1st – Preakness8th
2018Good Magic2nd9th
Mendelssohn20th2nd
2019Code of Honor2nd 1st 

Four More Months of Horse Development

Horses that continue to race after the Derby will see their performance progress, or sometimes regress, as the season goes on. Young horses transitioning from their 2-year old to 3-year old season fall into one of a several categories:  

  • The precocious ones. These horses exhibit early talent only to fizzle out by the time January and February roll around.  Occasionally among these early bloomers, a special colt like American Pharoah will emerge that has the ability to both win graded stakes as a 2-year old and still carry that talent all the way to May and beyond.  
  • The gradual progressors. These horses slowly progress from the fall of their 2-year old season into the spring of their 3-year old season, and if connections are lucky, will peak at the right time in early May. Last year’s eventual winner, Country House, is a classic example.
  • The newbies. Horses that begin their racing careers early in their 3-year old season and are yet still competitive on the first Saturday in May are only a recent phenomenon. In 2018, Justify became the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby having not run at all at the age of two. 
  • The late bloomers.  These horses are just not ready to win a race like the Kentucky Derby in May.  Some are never ready. Others get injured and sometimes, it just takes more time for the light to go on mentally and develop more physically.

Regardless of how horses enter the Triple Crown Series, for a variety of reasons many fail to exit the same, unable to mimic the earlier success they may have had.  This year, late bloomers will be afforded the opportunity to catch up.  

Foal Date?

Is it possible to glean any information from examining the date a horse was foaled?  Six of the last seven Travers winners were April or May foals (the seventh horse was Keen Ice who was foaled at the end of March, so not far off).  Of the Kentucky Derby winners over the same period of time, four were foaled in February (Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Always Dreaming), two were foaled in March (Nyquist, Justify) and only one in May (Country House).  At least from this small sample size from under the current system of awarding points, it seems as though early foals, more times than not, are better suited for the May Derby, but by September those later foals seem to catch up. 

The Training Layoff

Nine-furlong prep races for Derby qualification conclude 3 to 5 weeks prior to the Derby, so horses tend to mirror this training layoff period.  Trainers must balance sufficient rest with building sufficient stamina for a horse to run ten furlongs for the first time, as well as gaining the needed points to simply make the gate. Using the Travers again for comparative purposes, here are the last 7 winners and their layoff prior to their victory in the Midsummer Derby. As you can see, while 2013-2015 all came off 4-week layoffs, the last four years trainers have chosen to give additional rest to winners.  Since it is still unknown exactly which races will be tagged as awarding additional points, or even when racing will return to normal due to the pandemic, it will be well worth watching how trainers manage the layoff coming into this year’s Derby.

YearHorse# Weeks Training Layoff
2013Will Take Charge 4
2014V.E. Day4
2015Keen Ice4
2016Arrogate7
2017West Coast6
2018Catholic Boy7
2019Code of Honor7

Pace Makes the Race

Pace is a factor in any race and the Kentucky Derby is no different.  It invariably starts off in a mad rush, as riders “jockey” for position towards the first turn, with the first two furlongs usually running under 23 seconds.  As horses begin to settle into position, the pace slows slightly the next two furlongs, but not by much. Normally, it is not until horses enter the backstretch that the pace begins to ease up even more, until of course, the far turn when horses begin to make their moves.  On the other hand, when examining the Travers Stakes, I found, when compared to the Derby, it is normally a slower, steadier pace early, and many times overall. So, what does it mean for this year’s Derby? While horses may continue to develop both mentally and physically from May to September, I don’t suspect the pace setup this year to change at all from previous years.  It will still be a 20-horse field, and jockeys will still attempt to secure positions that suit each horse’s particular running style. This will, no doubt, create the same quick fractions early we’ve seen each year. Those horses that exhibit the types of tactical speed and energy distribution that typically prove successful in May will most likely be the ones that are successful in September.  The question is, exactly which horses will make it to September unscathed and peaking at the right time?

Peak Performance

There are many reasons why horses fail to move on to successful careers as older horses and why even some fail to succeed during late Summer of their 3-year old season in a race like the Travers.  Horses that are extremely successful, like Justify, the most recent Triple Crown winner, are often retired to the breeding shed to maximize value for their owners. Other times it may be injury, or as mentioned earlier, horses can peak early and never regain their earlier form.  Sometimes it is just the grind of competing in the Triple Crown Series. While most horses never run in all three legs, even two to three races at 10-12 furlongs over a five-week period is grueling for young horses, especially on top of the preps, which is another factor I considered here.   

Let’s take a look at the last seven winners of the Travers Stakes and how many legs of the Triple Crown they competed in to see if there is any correlation:

YearHorseTriple Crown Races
2013Will Take Charge Kentucky Derby, Preakness & Belmont
2014V.E. DayNone
2015Keen IceKentucky Derby & Belmont
2016ArrogateNone
2017West CoastNone
2018Catholic BoyNone
2019Code of HonorKentucky Derby 

Only Will Take Charge ran all three legs of the Triple Crown and still won the Travers.  American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, came close in 2015 finishing second to Keen Ice. When horses run in more than one Triple Crown race, the ability to make it to the Travers in peak form, let alone win, can certainly be compromised.  That is a normal year. Due to the likely scenario that all three legs of the Triple Crown could be postponed, this year is different and perhaps the results we see will be different as well.   

Final thoughts

When handicapping the Derby this year, can we or should we throw out everything we have considered “normal” in previous years?  Or should we handicap this year’s Derby the same way we might handicap a race like the Travers? My analysis so far is suggesting to me that an extreme stance on either side will fail to produce a winning approach. While the additional time will certainly afford injured horses, or those simply not ready to run in the May edition, a chance to make up ground, front-runners in April and May will also be afforded the luxury of time to build on their foundation without the grind of so many races earlier in the year. I believe the run for the roses will mostly play out the same way, perhaps with a few new faces, but whichever way it turns out, I will still be looking forward to the world’s greatest horse race held for the first time, on the first Saturday in…September.

By Scott Calabrese

Scott Calabrese loves playing the horses and has a particular fondness for the Kentucky Derby.  He can be found on Twitter @TooClose2Call and has a website in the works that will specialize in handicapping the Kentucky Derby Superfecta.  

@PastTheWire you did do her justice, this is a great read on a tragic moment in the history of our great sport, thank you.

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