A Classic Connection: How Derby Horses Fare in the Breeders' Cup Classic

November 3rd, 2023

At 10 furlongs, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) stands as the capstone race of the two-day, 14-race world championships. Its distance is the same as the Kentucky Derby (G1), which invites handicappers to consider how horses that have traversed the 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May fare later in the Classic. Here is a look at 14 previous Classic winners who also ran in the Kentucky Derby, a possible angle to consider as you plan your wagers this weekend.

Dating back to the Breeders’ Cup's earliest days, two of the first three winners of the Classic competed in the Kentucky Derby either the same year or the year before. In 1985, Proud Truth finished fifth in the Derby won by Spend a Back and then won the Classic over a field that included 1984 Preakness winner Gate Dancer; Chief’s Crown won the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) in 1984 before finishing third in the 1985 Derby; and Skywalker finished sixth in that same Derby before winning the Classic at age four.

The late 1980s featured several Kentucky Derby winners who found success in the Classic as well, with two winning the year after their trips to Churchill Downs. Ferdinand took the 1986 Derby and then went on to Hollywood Park to take the 1987 Classic over that year’s Derby winner Alysheba, Cryptoclearance, and Gulch. The next year, a four-year-old Alysheba got his Classic win in the dark at Churchill Downs and then Sunday Silence followed in 1989, adding the Classic to his nine wins in 14 starts, which included the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. 

To start off the 1990s, Unbridled brought Frances Genter wins in both the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park. Skip Away bettered his 12th-place finish behind Grindstone in 1996 with his Classic win the next year and then two years later, Cat Thief followed up on his third in Charismatic’s Derby with a win over Travers (G1) winner Lemon Drop Kid in the 1999 Classic.

Hall of Famer and leading sire Curlin was third behind Street Sense and Hard Spun in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and then beat them to the wire in that year’s Classic. Mucho Macho Man also finished third in his Derby in 2011 and then took the 2013 Classic at age five.

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah capped off his historic season with a sensational performance in the 2015 Classic at Keeneland. Then a four-year-old Gun Runner improved on his third in the 2016 Kentucky Derby with an easy win in the 2017 Classic. Vino Rosso finished ninth behind Justify in the 2018 Derby and then took the 2019 Classic at Santa Anita, rolling home over Preakness winner War of Will and Travers winner Code of Honor. 

The COVID-19 pandemic saw the 2020 Kentucky Derby moved to early September, with Authentic going gate-to-wire at Churchill Downs, and the colt then capped off his season with another gate-to-wire performance in the Classic at Keeneland.

Additionally, Derby starters have fared well in other Breeders’ Cup races, like the Dirt Mile (G1), where both Goldencents and Battle of Midway wheeled back from their 10-furlong tries to take the eight-furlong test. A handful of horses that stretched out unsuccessfully at Churchill Downs were able to shorten up to six furlongs in the Sprint, including Gulch in 1988, Artax in 1999, and Whitmore in 2020. War Chant and Court Vision made the switch from dirt in the Kentucky Derby to turf in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and came out victorious.

In all, horses that have tried the classic distance of the Kentucky Derby have found success at the Breeders’ Cup, at that same distance in the Classic, and at six furlongs and a mile. This represents an intriguing wagering angle for the 2023 edition of the Classic, as both 2022 Derby alumni White Abarrio and Zandon, and Derma Sotogake, sixth in this year’s Run for the Roses, take their own shots at 10 furlongs Saturday at Santa Anita.