Kentucky Derby Contenders: Expert Picks, Best Handicapping, Best Bet, Expert Who’s Nailed 6 Straight Races

Kentucky Derby Field Size

As much as the Kentucky Derby has stayed the same and replicated decades worth of traditions, perhaps the biggest change overall may be the actual field size, or actual numbers of runners who will be trying to make the gate on the first Saturday in May.

The Kentucky Derby field has been limited to 20 starters since 1975, the year after 23 horses contested the 100th anniversary of the Derby. Until 2020, at least 20 horses were entered the race every year since 2004, and in 19 of the last 21 years. Overall, there has been a field of 20 horses on 21 occasions, the first happening in 1923 when 21 horses went to the post, and there has been at least 16 starters in 20 of the last 21 years. There were 15 runners in 2020.

Largest Field: 23 in 1974 (100th running)

Smallest Field: 3 in 1892 and 1905

Total Starters: 1,938 from 1875 through 2020

Avg. Field Size: 13.3 from 1875 through 2019

Fields of 20 or More: 21

Fields of 15 or More: 69

Fields of 14 or Less: 78

Churchill Downs reintroduced the also-eligible rule in 2012. Up to 24 horses may be entered in the race on Wednesday of Derby Week, including four horses that can remain eligible to compete beyond the official time of entry. One or more of the “also eligible” horses could be allowed to run in their respective race if members of the original field scratch from the race prior to the official “scratch time” of 9 a.m. ET on Friday (Kentucky Oaks Day), which is the official opening of advance wagering on the Derby.

Horses with the highest point totals in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” races would “draw -in” to the field first. The same rules apply for the Kentucky Oaks, which has a maximum field size of 14. An eight-horse also-eligible list was instituted in 1983 and 1984, but advance wagering on the Kentucky Derby was negated because of refunds after late scratches. Although the 20-horse limit for the Kentucky Derby has been in existence since 1975, 21 horses were permitted to contest the 1981 Derby due to a “legal issue”.

Fillies in the Derby

Last year, despite pressure from fans and handicappers, the connections of the two best fillies in the 3-year-old division – Swiss Skydiver and Gamine – resisted pressure and temptation, skipped the Kentucky Derby and they instead faced off in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks. Neither won, both going down to Shedaresthedevil. The odds to win the Derby were against them anyway as only three fillies in history have captured the Run for the Roses — Winning Colors (1988), Genuine Risk (1980) and Regret (1915). Each raced against males before the Derby, too, while Winning Colors and Genuine Risk are the only two fillies to compete in all three Triple Crown races. Winning Colors finished third in the 1988 Preakness Stakes and sixth in the 1988 Belmont Stakes, while Genuine Risk finished second in both the 1980 Preakness and Belmont.

A total of 40 fillies have run in the Kentucky Derby and six were post-time favorites. Among them were Regret and Calumet Farm’s Nellie Flag, who finished fourth in 1935. The coupled entry of the filly Prudery, who finished third, and the colt Tryster, fourth, was favored in 1921. The entry of Althea (19th) and Life’s Magic (eighth) was favored in 1984, and the entry of the filly Serena’s Song (16th) and D. Wayne Lukas-trained stablemate Timber Country (third) was the post-time favorite in 1995.

A filly hasn’t started in the Derby since 2010 when Devil May Car finished 10th and no fillies will run this year.

Fillies in the Derby, with year and finish position:

Devil May Care: 2010, 10th

Eight Belles: 2008, 2nd

Excellent Meeting: 1999, 5th

Three Ring: 1999, 19th

Serena’s Song: 1995, 16th

Winning Colors: 1988, 1st

Life’s Magic: 1984, 8th

Althea: 1984, 19th

Cupecoy’s Joy: 1982, 10th

Genuine Risk: 1980, 1st

Silver Spoon: 1959, 5th

Misweet: 1945, 12th

Gold Seeker: 1936, 9th

Nellie Flag: 1935, 4th

Mata Hari: 1934, 4th

Bazaar: 1934, 9th

Oscillation: 1932, 13th

Alcibiades: 1930, 10th

Ben Machree: 1929, 18th

Startle: 1922, 8th

Prudery: 1921, 3rd

Careful: 1921, 5th

Cleopatra: 1920, 15th

Regalo: 1920, 15th

Viva America: 1918, 3rd

Regret: 1915, 1st

Bronzewing: 1914, 3rd

Watermelon: 1914, 7th

Gowell: 1913, 3rd

Flamma: 1912, 3rd

Round the World: 1911, 6th

Lady Navarre: 1906, 2nd

Pike’s Pride: 1883, 6th

Ada Glenn: 1879, 7th

Wissahickon: 1879, 9th

Early Light: 1877, 8th

Lizzie Stone: 1876, 6th

Marie Michon: 1876, 7th

Ascension: 1875, 10th

Gold Mine: 1875, 15th

Geldings in the Derby

So far, nine geldings — Vagrant (1876), Apollo (1882), Macbeth II (1888), Old Rosebud (1914), Exterminator (1918), Paul Jones (1920), Clyde Van Dusen (1929), Funny Cide (2003) and Mine That Bird (2009) are the only geldings to have won the Kentucky Derby. A total of 118 geldings have run in the Kentucky Derby since 1908 and nine were post-time favorites. The 1876 winner, Vagrant, also was the favorite.

In 2016 Suddenbreakingnews was listed as a gelding and had been throughout his career, but an ultrasound after his fifth-place finish in the Derby revealed that he had two undescended testicles. Suddenbreakingnews was officially listed as a “ridgling” for his next start in the Belmont Stakes. He hasn’t run since 2017.

Before Sackatoga Stables’ New York-bred Funny Cide won the Derby in 2003 (and then the Preakness) the drought for geldings had been 74 years dating back to 1929. This year, another New York-bred gelding in Brooklyn Strong will be the lone representative of the “ultimate equipment change” in the starting gate.

Margaret Ransom
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.

After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.

Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.