Using History to Handicap the 2022 Kentucky Derby

Time flies when you’re having fun. The Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is complete and the Grade 1 Derby itself is just two weeks away, which means it’s time for handicappers to buckle down and start planning which horses they intend to bet.

There isn’t a horse race anywhere in North America that receives more annual scrutiny than the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Considered to be “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby pits 20 lightly raced 3-year-old Thoroughbreds against each other in a battle for supremacy on the first Saturday in May.

Each year, handicappers spend months analyzing the top contenders for the historic race, which has been held every year since 1875. And once the field is set, they pour over historical data, looking for trends to aid their handicapping. Picking the winner isn’t just a matter of bragging rights—there’s great money to be won. Bettors who correctly selected the first four horses across the 2005 Kentucky Derby finish line were rewarded with a payoff of $864,253.50.

Not sure where to begin in analyzing the Kentucky Derby’s historical data? We’ve got you covered! We’ve put together a dozen trends to help point you toward the winner of racing’s renowned “Run for the Roses.”

Please note: For the purpose of analyzing historically productive betting angles, we are counting Medina Spirit as the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Although his was disqualified due to a positive post-race drug test, the disqualification does not affect the betting payoffs.

Speed Horses Have an Advantage

In the not-too-distant past, horses could come charging from just about anywhere in the pack to win the Kentucky Derby. But times change, and in recent years, the Derby has strongly favored horses with enough tactical speed to work out clean trips on the front end.

Case in point? Between 2014 and 2021, all eight horses who crossed the wire first in the Derby prevailed by setting or tracking the pace from no farther back than third place. This includes Maximum Security, who famously crossed the wire first in the 2019 Derby, only to be disqualified for causing interference on the far turn.

The takeaway? Don’t assume the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby will give an edge to late runners. Recent history suggests horses with tactical speed have a substantial advantage in the Run for the Roses.

Year

Winner

Position after first 1/2-mile

½-mile & ¾-mile times

2021

Medina Spirit

1st by 1 length (19 starters)

46.70, 1:11.21 (fast)

2020

Authentic

1st by 1 length (15 starters)

46.41, 1:10.23 (fast)

2019

Country House

8th by 4.75 lengths (19 starters)

46.62, 1:12.50 (sloppy)

2018

Justify

2nd by 0.5 lengths (20 starters)

45.77, 1:11.01 (sloppy)

2017

Always Dreaming

2nd by 1 length (20 starters)

46.53, 1:11.12 (wet fast)

2016

Nyquist

2nd by 4 lengths (20 starters)

45.72, 1:10.40 (fast)

2015

American Pharoah

3rd by 2 lengths (18 starters)

47.34, 1:11.29 (fast)

2014

California Chrome

3rd by 1.5 lengths (19 starters)

47.37, 1:11.80 (fast)

2013

Orb

16th by 18.75 lengths (19 starters)

45.33, 1:09.80 (sloppy)

2012

I’ll Have Another

7th by 8 lengths (20 starters)

45.39, 1:09.80 (fast)

Look for Horses Capable of Finishing Strongly

Horses who have shown the ability to finish fast at the end of a two-turn route race have the best chance to handle the Kentucky Derby’s testing 1 1/4-mile distance. When analyzing Derby contenders, look for horses who sprinted the final three-eighths of a mile of their final prep race in :38 seconds or less—we’ve compiled a handy chart to help you out. 

The data is strong: 18 of the last 24 Kentucky Derby winners successfully shaded the :38 mark in their final prep race, suggesting the ability to finish strongly is important for success on the first Saturday in May.

Derby contenders who finished their final prep in :38 seconds or less: Mo Donegal, Epicenter, Skippylongstocking, Early Voting, Rich Strike, Zozos, Tiz the Bomb, Zandon, Pioneer of Medina, Taiba, Tawny Port, and Messier.

Favor California Shippers and the Florida Derby Winner

Horses based in California have outperformed all others in recent renewals of the Kentucky Derby. Seven of the last 11 horses who crossed the wire first in the Derby (Medina Spirit, Authentic, Justify, Nyquist, American Pharoah, California Chrome, and I’ll Have Another) spent the winter in California and completed the majority of their training at Santa Anita Park, though Authentic, Nyquist and American Pharoah did race outside of California prior to the Derby.

Over the last decade, California has also produced Kentucky Derby runners-up Exaggerator (2016), Firing Line (2015), and Bodemeister (2012), plus third-place finishers Battle of Midway (2017) and Dortmund (2015). It’s safe to say 3-year-olds based in the Golden State warrant extra respect in the Run for the Roses.

However, the Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa at Gulfstream Park has also been highly productive. Over the last 15 years, Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming (2017) all managed to complete the Florida Derby/Kentucky Derby double.

Derby contenders based in California: Taiba, Messier, and Happy Jack.

Derby contenders exiting the Florida Derby: White Abarrio (winner), Charge It, and Simplification.

Oppose the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial Winners

Two prominent Kentucky Derby prep races—the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Presented by Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct—have struggled to produce Derby champions in recent years. No horse has used the Blue Grass as a springboard to success in the Run for the Roses since Street Sense in 2007, and the last horse to win both races was Strike the Gold in 1991.

The statistics for the Wood Memorial paint a similar picture. The last horse to exit the Wood Memorial and win the Kentucky Derby was Funny Cide in 2003, and the only horse in the past 40 years to win both races was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

Perhaps these trends are nothing more than statistical anomalies overdue to be broken, but a strict interpretation of the historical data suggests the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial tend to rank among the weaker of the major Kentucky Derby prep races. The fact the Wood Memorial has been downgraded from Grade 1 to Grade 2 status may cement this trend even further, causing top-tier Derby contenders to increasingly target more prestigious races like the Santa Anita Derby and Florida Derby.

Derby contenders exiting the Blue Grass: Zandon (winner), Smile Happy, Golden Glider, Rattle N Roll, and Ethereal Road.

Derby contenders exiting the Wood Memorial: Mo Donegal (winner), Early Voting, Skippylongstocking, and Morello.

Downgrade Horses Breaking from Post Positions 1 and 2

Due to the abnormally large field, the Kentucky Derby can be a challenging race for horses starting from inside post positions. Unless they break quickly, or drop back to rally from behind, it’s difficult for the horses drawn in posts 1 and 2 to secure clean and unencumbered trips.

The rail post is a famously tricky spot and hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Ferdinand in 1986. But post 2 hasn’t seen a winner since Triple Crown champion Affirmed in 1978, suggesting both slots can be bad news. Outside posts are generally preferable, with seven of the last 11 Derby winners starting from post 13 or wider.

Favor Last-Out Winners

Horses who prevailed in their final prep race have dominated recent editions of the Kentucky Derby. No fewer than nine of the last 11 Kentucky Derby winners entered off a victory. Furthermore, eight of those 11 entered the Kentucky Derby undefeated for the season, so it pays to arrive at Churchill Downs in winning form.

Derby contenders who won their final prep race: Epicenter, Zandon, White Abarrio, Mo Donegal, Tiz the Bomb, Cyberknife, Crown Pride, and Tawny Port

Derby contenders undefeated in 2021: White Abarrio and Taiba

 Avoid Horses Who Ran More Than Three Times Between January and April

This angle is a bit muddy, but here we go: a fresh horse in peak form has the best chance to win the Kentucky Derby, and horses who race too often during the winter and spring tend to be at a disadvantage. Between 2005 and 2018, every Kentucky Derby winner contested just two or three races between January and April of their three-year-old season.

This trend has been broken in two of the last three years by Country House and Medina Spirit, but there are some extenuating circumstances to note. Country House ran four times from January through April, but he was only awarded the roses via the disqualification of Maximum Security, who prepped three times.

On a related note, it’s uncommon for Kentucky Derby winners to contest three or more Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races and/or graded stakes between January and April. Since 2007, only Country House and Medina Spirit have won the Derby off such an action-packed racing schedule, and Country House benefited from the extenuating circumstances outlined above.

Derby contenders who ran four or more races between January and April: Simplification, Tawny Port, Barber Road, Summer Is Tomorrow, Happy Jack, In Due Time, Ethereal Road, Skippylongstocking, and Golden Glider.

Derby contenders who contested three or more Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races and/or graded stakes between January and April: Epicenter, Tiz the Bomb, Simplification, Tawny Port, Barber Road, Un Ojo, Happy Jack, Ethereal Road, Rattle N Roll, and Golden Glider.

Beware Horses With Only One or Two Lifetime Starts and Horses Who Went Unraced as Juveniles

It’s hard for inexperienced racehorses to win the Kentucky Derby. At least three starts before the Derby is a preferable preparation strategy. Derby starters with one or two career starts are highly uncommon, and Leonatus ranks as the only horse to win the Kentucky Derby off such a light racing schedule, securing his signature victory off two career starts in 1883.

Derby contenders who have only run one or twice: Taiba.

Since 1882, only one horse (2018 Triple Crown winner Justify) has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two-year-old. It’s hard to claim the roses without building foundation as a juvenile.

Derby contenders who did not race at age two: Charge It, Happy Jack, Zozos, and Taiba.

 Long Layoffs Haven’t Been a Strategy for Success

Since 1956, only two Kentucky Derby winners—Animal Kingdom in 2011 and Authentic in 2020—have won the Run for the Roses off a layoff of six weeks or more. A strong race within five weeks of the Derby is the usual recipe for success.

Derby contenders entering off layoffs of six weeks or more: Epicenter, Crown Pride, Zozos, Summer Is Tomorrow, and Pioneer of Medina.

Avoid Runners who Missed the Top Four in Their Final Prep

In 1957, Iron Liege finished fifth in the Derby Trial Stakes, then rebounded to upset the Kentucky Derby. Remarkably, he remains the most recent Derby winner to finish out of the top four in his final prep race. All subsequent Derby champions finished fourth or better in their last prep, suggesting horses in poor form a few weeks out from the Derby are unlikely to bounce back in the Run for the Roses.

Derby contenders who finished off the board in their final prep: Un Ojo, Morello, and Rattle N Roll.

Upgrade Sons of Grade 1-Winning Routers

Stallions who displayed the ability to win a Grade 1 race running one mile or farther have enjoyed the strongest success siring Kentucky Derby winners. Case in point? No fewer than 10 of the last 13 Derby champions were sired by a Grade 1-winning route runner, with Orb, California Chrome, and Medina Spirit the lone exceptions. If a stallion was an elite-level racehorse running long, there’s a good chance he’ll pass that ability on to his progeny.

Derby contenders not sired by Grade 1-winning route runners: Mo Donegal, Tiz the Bomb, Cyberknife, Taiba, Tawny Port, Early Voting, Morello, Messier, Charge It, Happy Jack, Pioneer of Medina, Ethereal Road, Rich Strike, Rattle N Roll, Skippylongstocking, Major General, and Golden Glider.

Conclusions

It’s difficult to find a Kentucky Derby contender who matches every angle we’ve outlined. However, several come very close, and they’re not necessarily going to be most popular horses in the betting.

White Abarrio is the first horse we’ll highlight. The Florida Derby winner has a ton of speed, is 2-for-2 this season, raced as a juvenile, and enters the Run for the Roses off an ideal five-week break. But his sire failed to win a Grade 1 race running one mile or farther, and White Abarrio needed :39.66 seconds to complete the final three furlongs of the Florida Derby, so stretching out over 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby is a question mark.

Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife offers many of the same benefits—the five-week layoff, the tactical speed, the juvenile racing experience, the strong recent form, etc. But Cyberknife needed :39.18 seconds to complete the final three furlongs of the Wood Memorial, and the Arkansas Derby hasn’t been quite as productive of a Kentucky Derby prep as the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby.

Finishing speed isn’t a question mark for Early Voting, a son of 2017 Horse of the Year and elite route racer Gun Runner. Early Voting ran the final three furlongs of the Wood Memorial in a rapid :36.42, even after carving out the early pace. But Early Voting was beaten to second place in the Wood Memorial, and nearly 20 years have passed since Funny Cide became the last Wood Memorial starter to win the Kentucky Derby.

Runhappy Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba also boasts many positives, including his perfect record in 2022 and his combination of tactical speed with finishing power. There are only two problems: Taiba didn’t race at age two and has only run twice in his life, and there are some powerful historical stats indicating this combination isn’t the best recipe for Kentucky Derby success.

Actually, the horse who best fits the historical profile of a Kentucky Derby winner is Runhappy Santa Anita Derby runner-up Messier. True, he was beaten in his final prep run, but this is the only angle Messier misses. The son of Grade 1 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker has tactical speed, ran the final three furlongs of the Santa Anita Derby in less than :38 seconds, is based in California, has only run twice this season, and enters off a four-week break. That sounds like a recipe for Kentucky Derby glory.

One prominent contender history suggests might be vulnerable is Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter. While his overall credentials are solid, Epicenter misses several of the historical angles we’ve outlined: he’s contested three Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifiers this year, he’s exiting one of the less productive prep races, he’s entering off a six-week layoff, and his sire failed to win a Grade 1 race running long.

So who should you bet in the 2022 Kentucky Derby? History indicates Messier is the one to support, with horses like White Abarrio, Cyberknife, Early Voting, and Taiba worth using underneath.

Good luck with your handicapping, and enjoy the Kentucky Derby!