Best trainers never to have won the Kentucky Derby

August 21st, 2023

The Kentucky Derby is America's signature race, but victory in it unfortunately eluded (or has) some of the finest and most accomplished horsemen in history. Below, in alphabetical order, are 10 Hall of Fame greats whose records do not include success on the first Saturday in May in the premier classic.

1. Steve Asmussen

The winningest trainer in history with more than 10,000 victories to his credit, Asmussen has been especially unlucky not to have won the Kentucky Derby. 

Although a vast majority of his Derby starters have been deserving longshots, Asmussen has also come up short with such outstanding talents as Curlin, a future two-time Horse of the Year; Gun Runner, Horse of the Year at age four; and eventual three-year-old champion Epicenter.

2. Chad Brown

Better known for his prowess with grass runners, in particular fillies and mares, the four-time Eclipse Award winner had his best finish in the Derby when juvenile champion Good Magic finished second to eventual Triple Crown winner Justify in 2018.

Brown has had more luck in the Preakness, winning twice with colts he voluntarily skipped the Derby with due to a lack of seasoning.

Chad Brown (far right) celebrates Bricks and Mortar's victory in the 2019 Breeders' Cup Turf (Photo by Bill Denver/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM)

3. Elliott Burch

A third-generation Hall of Famer, Burch achieved his greatest success as private trainer for such blueblood clients as Isabel Dodge Sloane, Paul Mellon, and C.V. Whitney.

Burch narrowly missed winning the Derby with Sword Dancer (1959) and Arts and Letters (1969), both of whom were named Horse of the Year. Those two plus Derby fifth Quadrangle (1964) gave Burch a troika of Belmont Stakes winners.

4. Bobby Frankel

Conditioner of champions across virtually all divisions and a five-time Eclipse Award recipient himself, the late Frankel is best known for training 21st century legend Ghostzapper.

Frankel's best shot at Derby glory came in 2003, when his Empire Maker fell short as the favorite against the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide. Nursing a quarter crack at the time, Empire Maker came back to deny Funny Cide a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont.

5. Hirsch Jacobs

At one time the winningest trainer in history and one of the earliest Hall of Fame inductees, Jacobs was U.S. champion trainer by wins for nearly the entirety of the Great Depression and World War II years. He had a particular knack for turning claimers into champions (e.g. Stymie).

Jacobs went 0-for-6 in the Derby, generally with pari-mutuel outsiders. Months after his death in early 1970, his homebred colts Personality and High Echelon respectively captured the Preakness and Belmont after losing the Derby.

6. Allen Jerkens

Affectionately known in New York racing circles as "The Chief," Jerkens was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975 having knocked off legends such as Kelso and Secretariat multiple times each. It earned him the label of "The Giant Killer," a moniker he reportedly disliked.

An influential presence on the turf for more than half a century, Jerkens trained only one division champion, the filly Sky Beauty, and the three colts he sent to Churchill Downs for the Derby all finished unplaced.

7. Richard Mandella

Conditioner of various Breeders' Cup winners, including four-time champion mare Beholder and Horse of the Year Kotashaan, Mandella has tended to excel with older horses throughout his 50-year career.

Mandella's best shot at Derby glory to date was in 2019, when his morning line favorite Omaha Beach was forced to scratch due to a cough and entrapped epiglottis. Omaha Beach ended the season a three-time Grade 1 winner, from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles.

8. John Nerud

Nerud vowed never to run another horse in the Kentucky Derby after his Gallant Man finished second to Iron Liege by a narrow margin in 1957 after jockey Bill Shoemaker, misjudging the finish line, stood up in the irons at the sixteenth pole.

A man of his word, Nerud nonetheless enjoyed future success with Gallant Man, who later won the Belmont Stakes and a spot in the Hall of Fame. Nerud's best horse was Dr. Fager, the 1968 Horse of the Year who won three division championships that season and set a world record for one mile.

9. John Veitch

One of the last of a breed of trainers who worked privately for blueblood stables, the recently deceased Veitch racked up numerous major wins and division titles in the 1970s and 1980s with horses sporting the famed silks of Calumet Farm and Darby Dan Farm.

Although never officially a champion, Veitch's best horse by far was Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown events in 1978.

10. Frank Whiteley

Although Whiteley won fewer than 900 races during a four-decade career, the quality of his successes more than made up for the relative lack of quantity.

Trainer of the legendary filly Ruffian and the great gelding Forego during his last two championship campaigns, Whiteley took two serious shots at the Kentucky Derby. Tom Rolfe finished third in 1965 before winning the Preakness and the three-year-old title, while Damascus finished third as a heavy favorite two years later. Damascus bounced back to win the Preakness and Belmont, Horse of the Year honors, and a spot in the Hall of Fame alongside Ruffian and Forego.

Honorable mention: Eddie Neloy, Scotty Schulhofer, Bill Winfrey