Only four 2-year-old Grade 1 winners have won the Kentucky Derby since 1985, a span of 27 years (15 percent). Before that, from the institution of Graded races in 1973 to the start of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984 , five Grade 1 winners at 2 won 11 Derbys (45 percent), and this list doesn’t include 1973 and 1972 Derby winners Secretariat and Riva Ridge, respectively, though they each won subsequently named Grade 1 races at 2. Including these two makes it seven of 13 (54 percent).
This continues the theme I’ve noted in the last three posts here that since the Breeders’ Cup races were established—which coincided with the rise of 2-year-olds-in-training sales, a shortening of distances of major Graded races, and the ballooning of Grade 1 events at sprint distances across the spectrum—future Derby winners haven’t been able to compete against the specialist 2-year-olds of their crops at 2, and it probably helps to explain why these same Derby colts haven’t been too successful after the Derby as distances once again drop into the range of the mile-and-a-sixteenth specialists that the majority of our 2-year-olds morph into at 3.
It also helps to explain why before the Breeders’ Cup and other cultural changes our best 2-year-olds could continue the upward development path to 3, because these colts were essentially bred to stay a longer trip and raced against like horses at 2 instead of physically mature and specifically bred 2-year-olds, which our juvenile sales produce at the top of the market.
These are the four Grade 1 winners during the last 27 years.
1. 1985 Derby winner Spend a Buck: won five of eight starts at 2, including the Grade 1 Arlington-Washington Futurity at a mile.
2. 1993 Derby winner Sea Hero: won three of seven starts at 2, including the Grade 1 Champagne at a mile.
3. 1998 Derby winner Real Quiet: won two of nine starts at 2, including the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity at a mile and a sixteenth.
4. 2007 Derby winner Street Sense: won two of five starts, including the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at a mile and a sixteenth.
Note that the last three have 2-year-old win records below 50 percent, which indicates that they started to get better at 2 as the distances lengthened.