When Do Kentucky Derby Winners Typically Debut?

November 16th, 2018

There can be no denying that the 2018 Kentucky Derby victory by Justify has signaled a significant shift in the way that horses are being prepared for that tough test on the first Saturday in May.

With horses racing less and less prior to the Kentucky Derby, we knew it was just a matter of time before a talented horse would come along and replicate the fabled 1882 Kentucky Derby winner Apollo by winning the “Run for the Roses” without having any racing experience as a two-year-old. The fact that swept the after breaking the “Apollo Curse” will only further encourage horsemen to take a more conservative approach with their young runners in the future.

On the other hand, one can also consider the possibility that Justify is the exception that proves the rule. Between 1883 and 2017, every single Kentucky Derby winner had run at least once as a juvenile, and over the last dozen years every Derby winner except Justify had debuted by September of their two-year-old year. Furthermore, five of the last 12 Derby winners won a graded stakes race as a juvenile, another two at least competed in graded stakes company, and eight of the last 12 made at least three starts during their two-year-old season.

Curious to see the details on a year-by-year basis? Here you go:
  • Justify (2018): Did not race as a 2yo.
  • Always Dreaming (2017): Debuted on July 1st and ran twice as a 2yo.
  • Nyquist (2016): Debuted on June 5th and ran five times as a 2yo.
  • American Pharoah (2015): Debuted on August 9th and ran three times as a 2yo.
  • California Chrome (2014): Debuted on April 26th and ran seven times as a 2yo.
  • Orb (2013): Debuted on August 18th and ran four times as a 2yo.
  • I’ll Have Another (2012): Debuted on July 3rd and ran three times as a 2yo.
  • Animal Kingdom (2011): Debuted on September 18th and ran twice as a 2yo.
  • Super Saver (2010): Debuted on August 22nd and ran four times as a 2yo.
  • Mine That Bird (2009): Debuted on July 20th and ran six times as a 2yo.
  • Big Brown (2008): Debuted on September 3rd and ran once as a 2yo.
  • Street Sense (2007): Debuted on July 9th and ran five times as a 2yo.
The main takeaway? While Justify demonstrated that juvenile racing experience isn’t absolutely required in order to win the Kentucky Derby, such experience certainly doesn’t hurt, and the majority of recent Derby winners started their careers a lot sooner than many might realize. In fact, based on the details above, history suggests that the 2019 Kentucky Derby winner has already run in a race or two… though of course, correctly identifying him at this early stage is easier said than done!