The First Saturday in … September? Date Shift Could Alter Kentucky Derby Complexion

Nyquist was the dominant 3-year-old of the spring in 2016, but by summer Arrogate had taken over as the leader of the division and would go on to win the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. (Eclipse Sportswire)

For decades, horse trainers have worked hard to ensure that their best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds are ready to deliver peak performances on the first Saturday in May, the annual date of the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs.

But due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Churchill Downs announced March 17 that the 2020 Kentucky Derby will be postponed from May 2 to Sept. 5. Now the date to target is the first Saturday in September, and this change promises to have a far-reaching impact on the complexion of the race.

A four-month delay might not seem like much in the scheme of things, but four months is a long time in the sport of horse racing. Thoroughbreds mature quickly during their 3-year-old seasons, and there’s no guarantee the best horse in May will still be the division leader in September.

In fact, history shows us that the star of the summer is often a late-maturing colt who either skipped or ran poorly in the traditional spring classics. Review the results of the last decade, and you’ll find a bevy of Kentucky Derby winners who were nowhere to be found by the first Saturday in September, leaving up-and-comers to dominate the rich races of summer and fall.

In short, the postponement of the Kentucky Derby figures to significantly alter which horses will be ready to vie for victory when the race is finally run. Just consider how a Derby date change might have affected the racing scene in each of the last 10 years:

2019: Country House was awarded victory in the Kentucky Derby through the controversial disqualification of Maximum Security, but never ran again after the first Saturday in May. Maximum Security wound up as the champion 3-year-old of 2019, but he was on the sidelines in September, recovering first from a hard effort in the Haskell Invitational Stakes and later from an episode of colic. Instead, it was Code of Honor (third across the finish line in the Kentucky Derby) who dominated in the summer and fall, winning the Dwyer Stakes, Runhappy Travers Stakes, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in succession.

2018: The undefeated Justify was the undisputed star of the first half of the season, blazing to victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown. But Justify was retired soon after the Belmont, and by the time September rolled around the star of the sophomore show was Catholic Boy. A troubled winter prep season prompted Catholic Boy to skip the Triple Crown series, but by summertime he was a force to be reckoned with, utilizing a combination of stamina and versatility to nab victories in the Belmont Derby Invitational and Travers Stakes.

2017: Always Dreaming relished a sloppy track at Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Derby, but by summertime he had regressed significantly and was no longer the division leader. The baton instead passed to the late-maturing West Coast, who skipped the Triple Crown before winning the Los Alamitos Derby, Travers Stakes, and Pennsylvania Derby, in the process becoming the champion 3-year-old male of 2017.

2016: Reigning champion juvenile Nyquist entered the Kentucky Derby undefeated and exited the race with a 1 1/4-length victory. But the first Saturday in May proved to be Nyquist’s last hurrah — he never won again and was overshadowed during the summer and fall by Arrogate, who used a record-shattering victory in the Travers Stakes and as a springboard to success in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Like West Coast, Arrogate was voted champion 3-year-old male.

2015: From March through November, Triple Crown champion American Pharoah was clearly the best 3-year-old of 2015. Judging from his victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational, and Breeders’ Cup Classic, it seems safe to assume the 2015 Horse of the Year would have won the Derby regardless of when it was contested.

2014: California Chrome was a clear-cut division champion by virtue of Grade 1 victories in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Hollywood Derby. But by the end of the season he’d encountered a formidable rival in Haskell Invitational Stakes winner Bayern, who defeated California Chrome in the Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. A showdown on the first Saturday in September could have gone either way between the season’s two fastest sophomores.

2013: A fast pace helped Florida Derby winner Orb rally to an eye-catching victory on the first Saturday in May, but like several Derby winners throughout the decade, Orb never won another race. In contrast, the late-maturing Will Take Charge finished off the board in all three legs of the Triple Crown before emerging as the division champion thanks to victories in the Travers Stakes, Pennsylvania Derby, and Clark Handicap as well as a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

2012: I’ll Have Another dominated the first half of the season and was voted champion 3-year-old male based off wins in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness. But an injury prompted I’ll Have Another’s retirement prior to the Belmont Stakes, and by September the best sophomore left standing was Alpha. Unplaced in the Kentucky Derby, Alpha matured during the summer to record back-to-back triumphs in the Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers Stakes.

2011: Animal Kingdom posted an upset victory on the first Saturday in May, but a minor injury suffered in the Belmont Stakes sidelined him during the summer. In his absence, Stay Thirsty — unplaced in the Derby but runner-up in the Belmont — emerged as the best 3-year-old of the summer, winning the Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes.

2010: Super Saver rode the rail to victory in the Kentucky Derby, but the effort seemed to take its toll and he regressed sharply during the summer. In contrast, a disastrously troubled trip prevented Lookin At Lucky from vying for victory on the first Saturday in May, but he was otherwise the standout sophomore of 2010. During the winter he won the Rebel Stakes; following a sixth-place finish in the Derby, he claimed the Preakness. In the summer he landed the Haskell Invitational, and in the fall he nabbed the Indiana Derby. Given his talent and consistency, Lookin At Lucky might have starred on the first Saturday in September.

History aside, it’s possible the 2020 racing action won’t progress along these typical lines. Since there will no longer be an all-out effort for horsemen to have their horses in peak form on the first Saturday in May, the best 3-year-olds of the winter and spring may avoid burning out and instead stretch their dominance into late summer.

On the other hand, there’s a strong chance the horse who will shine brightest on the first Saturday in September is still in the shadows, unheralded and waiting for a chance to enter the spotlight. No matter how you slice it, the Road to the Kentucky Derby has taken a wild detour, sending horsemen and handicappers alike into uncharted territory.

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