Spa juvenile races have had little effect on Derby winners

After I tweeted yesterday that the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner (Chief’s Crown, 1984) also won the Saratoga Special Stakes but that the last Saratoga Special winner (1983) to win the Derby was Swale in 1984, a self-described “all around sports nut” by the name of Burton DeWitt asked me on Twitter, “Has anyone run in and lost the SS before winning the Derby since then?”

When I told him I’d check later, he said he had 15 minutes to do it himself. And this is what he tweeted to me after his research: “Nope. Derby winners in BC era have made more stakes starts 2YO summer at Santa Fe & Canterbury (1 each) than Saratoga (0).”

Then he tweeted to the Twitter community at large, “In fact, no future Derby winner ran against winners at Saratoga in Breeders’ Cup era. All races were MSWs.”

And indeed he is correct. The only Derby winners to race at the Spa as 2-year-olds since 1984 are:

1. 1988 Derby winner Winning Colors, who won a Saratoga maiden special.

2. 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero, fifth and second in Saratoga maiden specials.

3. 2008 Derby winner Big Brown, winner of a Saratoga maiden special.

4. 2010 Derby winner Super Saver, second in a Saratoga maiden special.

In contrast, during the 15 years from 1970 to Swale in 1984, five Derby winners won stakes races at Saratoga:

1. 1973 Derby winner Secretariat won the Sanford and Hopeful.

2. 1975 Derby winner Foolish Pleasure won the Hopeful.

3. 1976 Derby winner Bold Forbes won the Saratoga Special.

4. 1978 Derby winner Affirmed won the Sanford and Hopeful.

5. 1984 Derby winner Swale won the Saratoga Special and was third in the Hopeful.

Part of the reason for this is the specialization of 2-year-old racing, with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (knowingly or unknowingly) a target for some breeders and the Derby the goal for others. My column in the Wednesday edition of Thoroughbred Times TODAY (out tonight) addresses this topic in more detail.

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7 thoughts on “Spa juvenile races have had little effect on Derby winners”

  1. Sid,
    Wow,
    you got us scratchin our heads about the significance of your observation. Is it “specialization” or too much racin too early?
    You tell me.

  2. My guess is that as purses elevate in New York, there will be more participation in the stakes races at Saratoga, and consequently, more high quality 2-Y-Os showing up at the Derby after having run at the Spa…

    1. I don’t think purse structure has been a big problem. Saratoga has always had far and away the highest purses for 2YOs of any summer track. It’s just that most of the future Derby winners who were running that early were west coast-based. The others started their two-year-old campaigns in October or later. Increased purses won’t change that priming the horse for the Kentucky Derby, not Saratoga stakes, is the end goal.

  3. It is an interesting take that we’re now thinking of horses that might run the race of their life on the first Saturday in May of their three-year-old career as “late developers.”

    They may not be the top two-year-olds from the previous summer, but my guess is that at this stage of their career, speed and early maturity (which frequently, although not always go together) still often has the edge at Derby time. I would say that the result would be often be very different if the race was a few months later.

    What we are probably talking about is horses who are starting to show their class as later maturing two-year-olds which is when the search for graded earnings is really getting underway (from this year, it seems that a lot of the better members of crop were forward enough to earn a run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, if not to put in a peak performance).

    So what we are really looking at right now is a narrow window – a horse who is going to be ahead of his contemporaries from late fall through spring, and is a seven to nine furlong horse who through a combination of class, maturity, and probably good cardio, can make it another furlong. This might be late-maturing relative to a Saratoga two-year-old sprint stakes winner, but it’s still relatively early compared to a lot of the true ten furlong horses (of course, there will always be outliers like Animal Kingdom, but the general pattern holds up).

  4. With only three G1 races on dirt for 3yos at 10F and up (Derby, Belmont, Travers) in North America these days, I’d say we aren’t breeding a lot of true 10F horses.And this from a continent that in the 1970s and 1980s produced 11 of 20 Epsom Derby winners at 12F, but since then only four of the last 22.

    When Graded races first established in 1973, no open G1 sprints (Vosburgh included), but two G1s at 2m (Jockey Club Gold Cup) and 1 3/4 miles (San Juan Capistrano). Back then, a middle distance horse was one who got 10-12F.

    Nowadays, a “router” is a 9F horse.

    Things have changed a bit in the profile of 10F horses as the climate has.

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