Maiden Win Trends Among Kentucky Derby Starters

Most people who follow two-year-old races have a general idea of what kinds of maiden races to follow in order to find potential Kentucky Derby contenders.  Though baby races begin in March and April, the real excitement begins to build through the summer with the loaded maiden special weights at Saratoga and Del Mar, and continues through the classy winter racing at Gulfstream and Oaklawn.

But, I wondered if there were any trends that could suggest the types of maiden races whose winners tend to go on and start in the Kentucky Derby in a more methodical way than just following the buzz, or in a finer-grained way than just looking at all the maiden races on the A-level circuits.  As we all know, correlation does not mean causation — but in such a cluttered world as the racing calendar, correlation may offer a few suggestions on which kinds of maiden races to watch a little more closely.

So, I researched the maiden victories Kentucky Derby starter from the 1992 Kentucky Derby to the present, and began to mine the results for patterns.  Most of the data points were gathered from reading their charts published on Equibase.com. Information for international starters was supplemented with data from the starters’ pages on Racingpost.com, as well as Jbis.jp (for Japanese starters), Emiratesracing.com (for UAE starters), as well as contemporaneous news accounts.

This is what I found.

Maiden Win Distances

I would expect, since the Kentucky Derby is a mile and a quarter race, that horses would generally break their maidens going long, or at least going longer than an early-season baby race.  Of course, there would be some who won going short: either because they were route horses but more precocious or classy than their foes, because they were versatile, because their trainer’s program emphasizes working up to a longer distance, or because they were stone-cold sprinters whose owners had a bit of Derby Fever.

Over the entire 1992-2018 period, this is the distribution of distance categories of races in which non-maiden Kentucky Derby starters broke their maidens.  Over that time period, that includes 493 of the 498 starters. The five maiden starters during that period are not included in this or any other charts, given that they focus on maiden wins.  For the sake of generalization:

  • Sprint means a one-turn or straightaway race of six furlongs or less.
  • Extended Sprint means a one-turn or straightaway race of more than six furlongs.
  • Two Turn means a two-turn race.

Looking more closely at the actual distances of the races, the distances at which Derby starters over the entire 1992-2018 time period broke their maidens ranged from 3 to 9 furlongs, with a mean of 6.756 furlongs and a median of 6.5 furlongs.  The distribution of distances is as follows:

I’d expect the maiden wins to skew toward longer distances once the point system was determined, since points races demand route form in order to get a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.  Though Derby horses breaking their maidens in sprints have not completely disappeared, the prevalence has diminished since the institution of the Derby points system in 2013.

Looking back at the actual distances of maiden wins, that expected skew toward longer distances has borne out to some extent.  In the last 21 Derbies before the points era (1992-2012), the maiden win distances ranged from 3 to 9 furlongs, with a mean of 6.686 furlongs and a median of 6.5 furlongs.  In the points era (2013-2018), the maiden win distances ranged from 4.5 to 9 furlongs, with a mean of 6.99 furlongs and a median of 7 furlongs.

Looking more broadly to distance categories, though extended-sprint and two-turn races weren’t uncommon by any means, maiden wins for Derby starters were weighted toward traditional sprints.

Though traditional sprint distances of six furlongs or shorter make up enough of Derby starters’ maiden wins that they remain relevant even in the points era, both extended sprints and routes have become more common sources of Derby starters, by proportion, than they were before the advent of Derby points.

Maiden Win Types

Unsurprisingly, most Kentucky Derby starters break their maidens in open maiden special weight races.  Of the 493 Kentucky Derby starters between 1992 and the present who were no longer maidens when they loaded into the Derby starting gate, 434 got their diplomas in an open maiden special weight, or a similar race in another country. (Similar races abroad are either maiden races or races restricted to unraced horses, that were not claiming races or selling races.)

The next largest group, 21 horses, broke their maidens in state-bred maiden special weights.  The usual suspects account for most of them: twelve starters broke their maidens in New York-bred maiden specials, and six in California-bred.  The only Derby starters since 1992 to break their maiden in a state-bred maiden special anywhere else were Vicar’s In Trouble and Zarb’s Magic, who graduated amongst Louisiana-breds, and Dazzling Falls, who beat fellow Nebraska-breds at Ak-Sar-Ben.

I had expected to see more eventual Derby horses break their maidens against winners.  But, it’s unlikely — in fact, it’s almost as likely to see a Derby horse get a maiden win against winners as it is to see a Derby starter break their maiden for a tag.  Seven Derby starters since 1992 broke their maidens in graded stakes, six in an ungraded open stakes, and three in a state-bred stakes. Four others beat winners in other races: three in allowance (or European “novice”) races, and one in a handicap.  That adds up to 20 starters in the time period who broke their maidens against winners — only slightly eclipsing the 17 Derby starters who got their first wins when up for a claiming tag.

Two of those runners who graduated for a claiming tag ended up winning: Mine That Bird (2009) and Charismatic (1999).  Oddly enough, that’s a better win record than the horses who graduated against winners have. None of the Derby winners since 1992 broke their maiden against horses who had already won.  The best any has done was second place, achieved by 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) maiden-breaker Good Magic (2018).

When Are They Graduating?

Odds are, since this was published in December, most of the 2019 Kentucky Derby starters have already broken their maidens.  

Looking at the starters in the Kentucky Derby from 1992 through 2018, about half had broken their maidens by the end of September of their two-year-old year; by the end of December, 420 of the 493 non-maiden Kentucky Derby starters during that time period had broken their maidens.

This gives an idea of the distribution of maiden wins, but ther eare several trends worth looking at in specific parts of the year.

Late Summer, Early Fall

The apex of the Derby starters’ maiden victories came in the summer of the two-year-old year comes through the late summer and early fall of the two-year-old season, August through October.  45% of the starters who broke their maidens — 226 out of 493 — broke their maidens during that time period.

Through August and September, New York reigns supreme.  That’s especially true in August: 34 of the 76 August maiden-breakers broke their maidens in New York.  I was expecting California to be closer, with the Del Mar meet — but only 13 graduated in August in Southern California, which is closer to the 10 from the Mid-Atlantic circuit than the towering New York circuit.

Kentucky, which only accounted for three of the Derby starters’ maiden wins in August, kicks it up in September (18 of 74) and October (24 of 76).  That makes sense, between the oppressive summer heat beginning to dissipate and the move from Ellis to Churchill and Keeneland. Though the heat will always be a factor, it will be worth watching whether Ellis produces more maiden winners who make it to the Derby in the coming years, as more top barns zoom in on the rising purses at the Pea Patch.

Winter Flux

The activity in December and January was expected given the cadence of the Derby season, but given that racing circuits shift from fall to winter during that time of year, it made me wonder where the more live circuits were in those months.  November’s heavily prominent circuits are the expected ones — Kentucky, Southern California, and New York — but when does the action fly south for the winter?

December is the real month of flux. when the focus seems to filter most broadly across racing circuits.  Florida and Southern California lead with seven maiden winners each over the 1992-2018 period, but December in Kentucky has yielded six, Louisiana five, and New York four.  

However, looking at the dates of the maiden victories reveals what one would expect to see in Kentucky: the importance of Turfway has plummeted since they switched to a synthetic surface.  On the other hand, the importance of Fair Grounds as a source of December maiden winners that have made it to the Derby has been mostly recent. Southern California, New York, and Florida tracks have been factors throughout the period.

In January, a pair of circuits come into focus.  Florida and Southern California ruled the roost. Though January heralds the beginning of Oaklawn, its maiden winners rarely find the Derby starting gate.  And, though Fair Grounds is in full swing, their maiden winners in January have not been a strong source of Derby starters.

Despite Oaklawn’s raw number being low, it may just be the head of a trend, especially if Oaklawn’s massive maiden purses continue.  After all, both January Oaklawn maiden winners to make the Derby were recent: Hence in 2017 and Magnum Moon in 2018.

Fruitful Circuits, and the Curious Case of Florida

Looking specifically at racing circuits, the data does show that the tracks we think of as the Usual Suspects produce the most maiden winners who eventually run in the Derby.  New York, Southern California, and Kentucky maiden winners, taken together, account for 313 of the 498 Kentucky Derby runners from 1992 to the present. New York accounts for 112, Southern California is just behind with 109, and Kentucky can claim 92.

Sitting in fourth place is Florida, with 60 maiden winners.

In a Derby context, Florida is usually considered a winter circuit — a place where many of the top New York barns take their top horses and flee the snow.  But, the data also shows a smattering of maiden winners in Florida through the summer, when it isn’t one of the top circuits.

Dividing the Florida data by track shows the Gulfstream winners concentrated through the winter, and most of the two-year-old summer winners coming from Calder.  Calder does refer to specifically when it was called Calder; races at the facility from 2014 to the present, when it has been called Gulfstream West, are marked as such.  This suggests that the more recent trend skews toward Gulfstream — and the chart looking at the Florida maiden winners by Derby year bears out that Gulfstream has been the main source of Derby starters among Florida maiden winners in recent years.

Looking at the Derby starters by year who broke their maiden in Florida, it backs up the idea that Gulfstream is, in recent times, the most important among Florida tracks with respect to producing maiden winners.

Running Style

As Derby prospects, I’ve always been more drawn to horses who proved they could rate from off the pace — in poker terms, it gives the horse more outs.  A proven rating gear suggests that they don’t have to get the lead to win a race. Perhaps, if they show that passing gear in the maiden ranks, they could have more time to refine it before getting to the Derby.  But, on the other hand, I wondered whether there would be a skew toward speed, because of a “come and catch me, I’ve got the best horse” mentality that riders could have, legitimately, with a lot of true Derby prospects going against maidens.

At the risk of getting distracted by making too many gradations between running styles, I grouped the winning trips in maiden races into three buckets: those who led at every call of their maiden race (“wire”), those who did not lead at every call, but were no more than a length from the pace at any call (“press”), and those who were more than a length off the pace at any one call of their maiden victory (“pass”).

Just over half of the Derby starters from 1992-2018 for whom we had data were over a length away from the pace at one or more calls: 54.8%.  Among the rest, it was almost an even split between wire jobs (22.0%) and pressing trips (23.2%).

As far as whether they make it to the Derby, running style in a maiden win indicates little.

However, it may be more useful to suggest how they actually do in the Derby.  Based on the Derby starters since 1992, it seems my idea that horses who can pass other horses are better prospects might not be too far off base, given how their median (and even 25th percentile!) performances compare with horses who were no more than a length from the lead at any call in their maiden victory, or ones who led at every call.

The median Derby placing for a horse who wired their maiden win is 12th, and 11th for horses who were no more than a length off the pace at any call.  But, for horses who passed from further off the pace than that, their median placing is 8th. For both wire and press styles, the 25th percentile is 16th place — but for the pass style, 75% of Derby starters finish in 13th place or better.

Limitations and Expansions

Of course, this dataset has its limitations in both time and scope, and any analysis of this particular dataset has related limits.

As far as time is concerned, I went no earlier than 1992 because Equibase.com does not publish charts earlier than 1991, and I do not have access to paper chart books from the 1980s and 1990.  This would be interesting from a historical perspective, but is a lower priority given the goal of my research. Given the changes in horse racing over time, and the goal of trying to identify the types of maiden races that may be worth more focus in the future, I’m more concerned with strengthening the scope of analysis with respect to more recent races than trying to expand earlier than the 1992 Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby is just one race with up to twenty horses, so it may be worthwhile to expand the dataset to Preakness and Belmont starters as well, and see how the results compare.  This expansion is feasible given my practical constraints: the fact that I would have to gather all of this data from searching charts manually on the Equibase website and putting the data in a spreadsheet.  It would mean a few more afternoons of sifting through results, but may offer something to strengthen or weaken these as Triple Crown trends.

Of even more use would be to be able to compare these trends among eventual Derby starters to maiden race results in general.  For example, questions that come to mind include:

  • Are the maiden races that produce Kentucky Derby starters any longer or shorter than maiden races in general?
  • The average Kentucky Derby starter in this time period takes 2.121 starts to break their maiden.  How does this compare to other stakes horses? Other three-year-old stakes horses? Horses in general?

Answering these questions would require comparing the data for Derby starters to the trends in all maiden races over that time period.  That data is too voluminous to gather by hand, chart-by-chart, though it would be fascinating to do that analysis if that data became available in searchable format.  And, given the access to broader control groups, it would give a better idea of how significant each of these patterns actually are.

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