Kentucky Derby glory a longshot for major juvenile winners

November 8th, 2023

The lopsided win by Fierceness in last week's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) has put the colt in the position of early favorite to repeat that success in the 150th edition of the Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs next May. 

However, despite earning an imposing 112 Brisnet Speed rating for winning the Juvenile, Fierceness will have to buck a long-standing trend against winners of that race repeating on the first Saturday in May. The trend also extends to major two-year-old stakes winners in general.

In the first 39 years of Breeders' Cup Juvenile history, only Street Sense (2006-07) and Nyquist (2015-16) won both it and the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps coincidentally, both Juvenile wins occurred in the state of Kentucky: Street Sense's at Churchill Downs and Nyquist's at Keeneland.

In the Juvenile’s defense, no other significant two-year-old race contested at a mile or longer has been won more than two times by the eventual Kentucky Derby winner since the Juvenile's inception in 1984.

On par with the Juvenile is the FrontRunner/American Pharoah (G1) at Santa Anita, won by American Pharoah (2014-15) and Nyquist. Another is the Remsen (G2) at Aqueduct, won by Go for Gin (1993-94) and Thunder Gulch (1994-95). 

Races like the Champagne (G1), Hollywood/Los Alamitos Futurity (G2), and Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) have each been won by one future Derby winner since 1984. Meanwhile, the Breeders' Futurity (G1) winner has been shut out of the Churchill Downs winner's circle entirely during the Breeders' Cup era.

How does the Breeders' Cup Juvenile’s record of 2-for-39 (5%) stack up against the major two-year-old races held in the 39 years (1945-83) before its creation?

The most notable races for two-year-olds held at a mile or beyond in the pre-Breeders' Cup era were the Champagne, Pimlico/Laurel Futurity, and Garden State. All produced better results than the Juvenile.

From 1945-83, the Champagne was won by four (10%) eventual Derby winners, and it would have been five if Secretariat had not been controversially disqualified in 1972. The Futurity held at either Pimlico or Laurel yielded six winners (15%) in that 39-year span, while the Garden State, which had a two-turn history spanning only 20 years, from 1953 through 1972, had three (15%) eventual Derby winners succeed.

Even the Remsen, which was considered a lesser event than the above three in that era, too, was won by the eventual Derby winner three times (8%) in 38 runnings.

Where the comparisons between the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and races of yore arguably break down a little is that the quality of the winners way back when was exceptional. For example, the Champagne/Derby winners were Riva Ridge (1971-72), Foolish Pleasure (1974-75), Seattle Slew (1976-77), and Spectacular Bid (1978-79), all future Hall of Famers.

The Futurity held at the Maryland tracks was also won by Riva Ridge and Spectacular Bid, as well as Triple Crown winners Citation (1947-48), Secretariat (1972-73), and Affirmed (1977-78). The other was Jet Pilot (1946-47).

The Garden State, in addition to Riva Ridge and Secretariat, was also won by Carry Back (1960-61), himself a Hall of Fame inductee. The Remsen was garnered by Carry Back, Hall of Fame inductee Northern Dancer (1963-64), and Pleasant Colony (1980-81).

Keep in mind, too, that quite a few Kentucky Derby winners during the 1946-84 era raced sparingly or not at all beyond sprint distances as two-year-olds, either by choice or injury. Notables like Middleground (1949-50), Hill Gail (1951-52), Swaps (1954-55), Needles (1955-56), Tomy Lee (1958-59), Venetian Way (1959-60), Forward Pass (1967-68), and Bold Forbes (1975-76) all won significant stakes as juveniles, though none at a mile or longer.

The bottom line is that it has taken a truly exceptional racehorse to win both a significant two-year-old stakes at a mile or beyond and the Kentucky Derby, even more so over the last four decades. History is generally against Fierceness joining such a select group, but only time will tell.