Using History to Handicap the 2020 Kentucky Derby

Always Dreaming closely tracked the pace to win the 2017 Kentucky Derby
Always Dreaming closely tracked the pace to win the 2017 Kentucky Derby (Sue Kawczynski/Eclipse Sportswire)

Like many things in 2020, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is going to look a little (or a lot) different this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted the postponement of the race from May 2 (the fabled “First Saturday in May”) until Sept. 5 (the alliterative, but historically jarring “First Saturday in September”). The race will be run without fans, and a few horses who would have been prominent contenders in May are no longer part of the equation.

The date change could have additional impact as well. Some handicappers will be tempted to throw historical Kentucky Derby handicapping rules out the window, figuring the race has been turned upside down and will unfold in a different manner than usual.

But even with all the changes -- and even with the significant extension of the 2019-’20 Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying schedule -- certain rules and standards should still apply. Let’s dive into the recent history of the Kentucky Derby and review a few key trends to help identify the winner:

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 recent years have seen a significant shift in favor of horses possessing enough tactical speed to work out clean trips on or near the front end. Between 2014 and 2018, five consecutive Derby winners prevailed by tracking the pace from no farther behind than third place. In addition, pacesetter Maximum Security famously crossed the finish line 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 advantage to late runners. Recent trends suggest speed horses hold a substantial advantage in the run for the roses.



Position after first 1/2-mile

½-mile & ¾-mile times


Country House

8th by 4.75 lengths (19 starters)

46.62, 1:12.50 (sloppy)



2nd by 0.5 lengths (20 starters)

45.77, 1:11.01 (sloppy)


Always Dreaming

2nd by 1 length (20 starters)

46.53, 1:11.12 (wet fast)



2nd by 4 lengths (20 starters)

45.72, 1:10.40 (fast)


American Pharoah

3rd by 2 lengths (18 starters)

47.34, 1:11.29 (fast)


California Chrome

3rd by 1.5 lengths (19 starters)

47.37, 1:11.80 (fast)



16th by 18.75 lengths (19 starters)

45.33, 1:09.80 (sloppy)


I’ll Have Another

7th by 8 lengths (20 starters)

45.39, 1:09.80 (fast)


Animal Kingdom

10th by 6.25 lengths (19 starters)

48.63, 1:13.40 (fast)


Super Saver

6th by 8 lengths (20 starters)

46.16, 1:10.58 (sloppy)

Long layoffs haven’t been a strategy for success

Since 1956, only one Kentucky Derby winner -- Animal Kingdom in 2011 -- has 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, and an important standard to keep in mind since a larger number of horses than usual will enter the 2020 Kentucky Derby off extended breaks.

Avoid runners who finished off the board 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 off the board in his final prep run. All subsequent Derby champions finished fourth or better in their last prep race, suggesting horses in poor form a few weeks out from the Derby are unlikely to rebound in the Churchill classic race.

Upgrade sons of Grade 1-winning routers

Stallions who showed the ability to win Grade 1 races running a mile or farther have enjoyed the strongest success siring Kentucky Derby winners. Case in point? Nine of the last 11 Derby winners were sired by a Grade 1-winning router, with Orb and California Chrome 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.

Favor California shippers and the Florida Derby winner

Horses based in California have outperformed all others in recent renewals of the Kentucky Derby. Five of the last 10 Derby winners (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 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.

Yet the single most productive prep race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby has undoubtedly been the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. 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, and Maximum Security (2019) would have done the same if not for his disqualification at Churchill Downs.

Downgrade horses in post positions 1 and 2

With its 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 horses starting from posts 1 and 2 to secure clean and unencumbered trips.

The rail is a famously tricky spot and hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Ferdinand in 1986. But post-position 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 six of the last nine Derby winners starting from post 13 or wider.

Look for horses who can finish strongly

Horses capable of finishing 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. Look for horses who have shown the ability to sprint the final 3/8 miles of a 1 1/8-mile race in less than :38 seconds -- we’ve compiled a handy chart to help you out. No fewer than 18 of the last 22 Kentucky Derby winners successfully shaded the :38 mark in their final prep race, suggesting the ability to finish strongly is critical for success at Churchill Downs.

Favor last-out winners

Horses who prevailed in their final prep race have dominated recent editions of the Kentucky Derby. If you count the disqualified Maximum Security, the last nine horses to cross the finish line first at Churchill Downs entered off a victory. Furthermore, eight of those nine entered the Kentucky Derby undefeated for the season. It pays to arrive at Churchill Downs in winning form.


Pending the post-position draw, it’s hard to find a reason to play against Tiz the Law, who may start as the heaviest Kentucky Derby favorite since Arazi in 1992. Not only is Tiz the Law a four-time Grade 1 winner fresh off victories in the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and Runhappy Travers Stakes, he’s also a perfect match for the profile of a typical Kentucky Derby winner.

Consider the following:

  • Tiz the Law has ample tactical speed and will be forwardly placed from the start.
  • He’s entering the Derby off a four-week layoff, perfect timing for a peak performance.
  • He won his final prep race, dominating the 1 1/4-mile Travers by 5 1/2 lengths, and is undefeated in 2020.
  • He’s a son of Constitution, a two-time Grade 1 winner racing 1 1/8 miles.
  • He won the Curlin Florida Derby during the winter at Gulfstream Park.
  • He’s repeatedly finished fast, closing the final three-eighths of a mile of both the Belmont Stakes and the Travers in less than :37 seconds — far better than the :38-second cutoff.

Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and Runhappy Ellis Park Derby winner Art Collector also warrants respect, though he’s been based in Kentucky this season and hasn’t faced the same caliber of competition as Tiz the Law (UPDATE: Art Collector was withdrawn from consideration for the Derby on Sept. 1 due to a minor foot injury). Santa Anita Derby winner Honor A. P. and Haskell Stakes victor Authentic loom as the best of the Californians, but both have questions to answer. Honor A. P. is a late runner who lost his final prep race, while Authentic required more than :38 seconds to complete the final three-eighths in his last two races and enters the Derby off a seven-week layoff.

In short, Tiz the Law is going to be tough to beat in the run for the roses, giving trainer Barclay Tagg and owner Sackatoga Stable a chance to recapture the Derby magic they enjoyed with Funny Cide back in 2003.

Good luck with your handicapping, and enjoy the race!

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Instagram TikTok YouTube
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Instagram TikTok YouTube