Always Dreaming at the Kentucky Derby (TwinSpires Photo)

How did Always Dreaming’s Kentucky Derby prep race schedule compare to previous Kentucky Derby winners?

After a series of prep races which often baffled, and frequently muddied the picture rather than clarified it, the favorite won the Kentucky Derby for the fifth year in a row.

by Alastair Bull

Admittedly, Always Dreaming was at odds of 4.7-1 – of those four previous winning favorites, only Orb (5.4-1) was at a longer price – but it highlights that even in an unpredictable year, the lead-up form was still highly relevant.

Always Dreaming came into the Derby with the third-equal best performance in terms of BRIS Speed Ratings with 102, behind only J Boys Echo (104) and Hence (103), neither of whom figured in the Derby finish. Visually, however, his effort was as impressive as any Derby prep, matched perhaps only by Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull Stakes and the injured Mastery in the San Felipe.

Excuses were made for Gunnevera in the Florida Derby, but often it’s best to take outstanding performances like Always Dreaming’s victory at Gulfstream Park on face value.

“…in the past decade…the importance of the Florida Derby as a guide to the First Saturday in May…

Perhaps one interesting trend that has emerged in the past decade has been the importance of the Florida Derby as a guide to the First Saturday in May. Always Dreaming became the third Florida Derby winner in the past five years to win the Kentucky Derby, after Nyquist (2016) and Orb (2013), and the fifth in the past 12 years (to that list add Big Brown and Barbaro).

It won’t always prove that way, and the second- and third-place finishers at Gulfstream Park (State of Honor and Gunnevera) both disappointed in the Derby, but nonetheless the trend is noteworthy.

Outside the Florida Derby, the most significant prep this year proved to be the Arkansas Derby, with its winner Classic Empire finishing fourth at Churchill Downs after an extremely troubled passage, and third-place finisher Lookin At Lee getting one spot closer in the Kentucky Derby. It perhaps bodes well for Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money in the Preakness.

Another fact of note is that Always Dreaming was the sixth consecutive Derby winner to have been unbeaten in his 3-year-old lead-ups. It wasn’t always that way – only three of the previous 10 Derby winners were unbeaten as sophomores. This may be connected to the preference of contemporary trainers to give their Derby horses fewer lead-up races; Always Dreaming was one of just three Derby winners in the past 10 years (California Chrome and Orb being the others) to run more than twice as 3-year-olds heading into the Derby.

“…talent is the most important factor…”

More unusual historically is that the Florida Derby was the only 3-year-old stakes race that Always Dreaming contested prior to the Kentucky Derby – something matched by only two other Derby winners (Animal Kingdom and Big Brown) in the past 10 years, and only one other (Monarchos) in the 10 years before that. Always Dreaming’s two races prior to the Florida Derby were victories in a Gulfstream Park allowance and a Tampa Bay Downs maiden.

Outsiders have found their way into the place and show spots over the years, and did so again in 2017. Lookin At Lee had shown in the past with his strong closing efforts that he would probably appreciate 1-1/4 miles, and he ran up to that evidence. Battle of Midway fought strongly for second in the Santa Anita Derby and is an inexperienced horse that’s probably still improving, though he didn’t really do much to suggest he was a better outside prospect than the others.

Ultimately, talent is the most important factor when trying to assess the Derby. But this year’s results added a few more talking points regarding the historical relevance of the various lead-ups.

3-year-old Lead-Ups of Kentucky Derby Winners (Most Recent Race First):

  • 2017: ALWAYS DREAMING – 1st Florida Derby, 1st Gulfstream Park allowance, 1st Tampa Bay maiden
  • 2016: NYQUIST – 1st Florida Derby, 1st San Vicente Stakes
  • 2015: AMERICAN PHAROAH – 1st Arkansas Derby, 1st Rebel Stakes
  • 2014: CALIFORNIA CHROME – 1st Santa Anita Derby, 1st San Felipe Stakes, 1st California Cup Derby
  • 2013: ORB – 1st Florida Derby, 1st Fountain of Youth, 1st Gulfstream Park allowance
  • 2012: I’LL HAVE ANOTHER –1st Santa Anita Derby, 1st Robert B. Lewis
  • 2011: ANIMAL KINGDOM – 1st Spiral Stakes, 2nd Gulfstream Park turf claiming
  • 2010: SUPER SAVER – 2nd Arkansas Derby, 3rd Tampa Bay Derby
  • 2009: MINE THAT BIRD – 4th Sunland Derby, 2nd Borderland Derby
  • 2008: BIG BROWN – 1st Florida Derby, 1st Gulfstream Park allowance
  • 2007: STREET SENSE – 2nd Blue Grass Stakes, 1st Tampa Bay Derby
  • 2006: BARBARO – 1st Florida Derby, 1st Holy Bull Stakes, 1st Tropical Park Derby
  • 2005: GIACOMO – 4th Santa Anita Derby, 2nd San Felipe Stakes, 3rd Sham Stakes
  • 2004: SMARTY JONES – 1st Arkansas Derby, 1st Rebel Stakes, 1st Southwest Stakes, 1st Count Fleet Stakes
  • 2003: FUNNY CIDE – 2nd Wood Memorial, 2nd Louisiana Derby, 5th Holy Bull Stakes
  • 2002: WAR EMBLEM – 1st Illinois Derby, 1st Sportsman’s Park allowance, 6th Risen Star Stakes, 5th Lecomte Stakes
  • 2001: MONARCHOS – 1st Florida Derby, 1st Gulfstream allowance, 1st Gulfstream minor race
  • 2000: FUSAICHI PEGASUS – 1st Wood Memorial, 1st San Felipe, 1st Santa Anita allowance, 1st Santa Anita maiden
  • 1999: CHARISMATIC – 1st Lexington Stakes, 4th Santa Anita Derby, 2nd El Camino Real Derby, 2nd Santa Anita allowance, 1st Santa Anita claiming, 5th Santa Catalina Stakes, 5th Santa Anita allowance
  • 1998: REAL QUIET – 2nd Santa Anita Derby, 2nd San Felipe Stakes, 8th Golden Gate Derby