Who is the best Kentucky Derby winner of the 2000s?

April 30th, 2021

The Kentucky Derby (G1) is coming up on Saturday, May 1. For this week's poll, let's look back on recent Derby history.

This week, you get to decide the best Kentucky Derby winner since 2000 who did not win the Triple Crown.

It's no slight on American Pharoah or Justify, of course. We all know they're great. But there have been a lot of good Derby winners in the last two decades who deserve a look, but get lost in the shuffle.

Let's look back at five of the best!

Animal Kingdom (2011)

Coming out of the Spiral Stakes (G3) at Turfway Park, few people expected Animal Kingdom to make much of an impact in the Kentucky Derby. After all, he had never run on the dirt before.

However, Graham Motion knew exactly what he was doing. The 20-1 shot came rolling from mid-pack and took complete command in the final furlong, winning by 2 3/4 lengths.

His versatility is what makes Animal Kingdom one of the best and most interesting Kentucky Derby winners in recent years. He was a good horse on dirt, also finishing second in the Preakness to Shackleford. But, he stayed in training as an older horse and kept holding his own with the best on other footings.

At age four, he ran second to the great Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup Mile. At five, he finished second to Point of Entry in the Gulfstream Park Turf (G1).

On synthetic, he won the Dubai World Cup at age five, in a two-length triumph over the wonderful globetrotter Red Cadeaux.

Barbaro (2006)

Before his injury in the Preakness, had we seen the best of Barbaro?

His Derby was, in the words of Tom Durkin, a "sublime performance." He wasn't away perfectly, but it didn't matter.

Into the lane, there was Barbaro bounding clear and 19 other horses figuring out who would finish second. Barbaro won the Kentucky Derby as easily as he had beaten horses on the turf in the first three starts of his career.

But, in his victories in both the Holy Bull (G2) and the Florida Derby (G1), he had also shown he didn't need to be ahead by a pole to get his picture taken at the end of the race.

Barbaro's career was so good that we can't help but wonder what might have been. But, short as it was, he marked himself one of the most impressive Kentucky Derby winners of the century so far.

California Chrome (2014)

California Chrome was a good Cal-bred at age two.

He was an excellent horse, period, at age three. He won the Santa Anita Derby (G1), the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness.

By the end of the year, he was a Grade 1 winner on turf, as well, holding well clear of Queen's Plate winner Lexie Lou in the Hollywood Derby (G1).

Keeping a three-year-old that good in training after that year was a gamble — one that looked like it might not pay off after California Chrome's Royal Ascot plans were derailed at four.

But, California Chrome was better than ever at age five. He avenged his defeat in the Dubai World Cup and beat the great Beholder in the Pacific Classic (G1).

Through the mid-2010s, Chrome no longer shone silver, but resplendent chestnut.

Nyquist (2016)

Though he never won again in three starts after the Kentucky Derby, Nyquist's career leading into the Kentucky Derby was stellar. He was the champion two-year-old of 2015: five starts, five wins, including three Grade 1s.

In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), he got bumped at the start, deprived of that forward trip he had enjoyed in his first four starts. No matter. Good horses win.

He took Derby preps from coast to coast: the San Felipe (G2) and the Florida Derby (G1), before giving sire Uncle Mo a Derby winner in his first crop.

Though the Kentucky Derby was the pinnacle of Nyquist's career on the track, he started at stud quickly like his own sire did, with foals like Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) winner Vequist.

Smarty Jones (2004)

It isn't often a Kentucky Derby winner starts his career at Philadelphia Park, now known as Parx.

Then again, it also isn't often that an announcer's voice cracks with heartbreak to see a horse run second in the Belmont, or that an owner accepts the August Belmont Trophy so apologetically.

And, that's the power Smarty Jones has. Of course, in addition to being the ultimate fan favorite, he was also just a very good horse. He was consistent. He always got his stalking spot, and he always made his run.

He dominated the Oaklawn spur of the Kentucky Derby trail so strongly that it now begins with a race named in his honor.

He kicked clear in the final furlong of the Derby, then won the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths.

In nine starts, the only thing that ever beat Smarty Jones was the mile and a half of the Belmont. But even after being passed by Birdstone, he tried as fiercely as all his fans still love him.

Now that you know the contenders, who is the best Kentucky Derby winner of the 2000s, among those who didn't win the Triple Crown?

Make your voice heard!

Looking back to last week, we asked your most intriguing Kentucky Derby longshot.

With an authoritative 40% of the vote, the horse you're most interested in despite him not yet having a stakes win is Florida Derby second-place finisher Soup and Sandwich!

Quite a few of you are also interested in O Besos, with 28% of the vote, and Dynamic One, with 20%.