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Trainers Seek that Elusive Kentucky Derby Victory

The Kentucky Derby is the race that all trainers want to win and very few, only one a year, ever succeed. Thus, it raises the question: Who is the best active trainer who has not won the Kentucky Derby?
It can happen at any point in a trainer’s career. Charlie Whittingham was the oldest to win the roses at the age of 76 with his second winner, Sunday Silence in 1989, and 24 year-old James Rowe Sr. was the youngest in 1881 with Hindoo. Johnny Longden trained Majestic Prince to victory in 1969 after having won the Derby as a jockey in 1943 with the great Count Fleet.
Here is a chart [based on Equibase statistics as of March 18, 2014] of the leading active trainers by career earnings to use as a reference tool. Some are already Derby winners, and surprisingly some are not. Clearly these top earning trainers have been working with better quality horses at the most competitive tracks. There are also trainers who rank highly in number of wins but have never had a Derby horse because they work at lower echelon tracks.
Winning the Kentucky Derby is no easy task. Todd Pletcher has only one win in 35 tries. Five of those top-earning trainers are not only winless on the first Saturday in May but they have not cracked the top three in the Derby with a combined record of 31: 0-0-0. That is how hard it is to win America’s most coveted race.
Steve Asmussen saddled his first Derby horse in 2001 and he has had a total of 12 runners. Curlin, who finished third in 2007 as the 5-1 second choice, was his most famous Derby horse. Nehro got Asmussen a second place finish at 8.5-1 behind Animal Kingdom in 2011. Could Tapiture give Asmussen his first taste of the Roses in 2014?
It looked like this might be the year for Hall of Fame trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, but the 2013 juvenile champion Shared Belief is off the Derby Trail. The Golden Gate Fields based trainer has had five Derby runners since 2003 with a fifth place being his best finish. Hollendorfer did win this year’s El Camino Real Derby, on a synthetic surface, with Tamarando.
Larry Jones, who has won many big races in recent years, has had good luck in his only three Derby starts. He had back-to-back second place finishes in 2007 with Hard Spun and in 2008 with the ill-fated filly Eight Belles. In 2009 his Derby favorite Friesan Fire finished a distant 18th. Jones has Albano on this year’s Louisiana road to the Kentucky Derby, so he has a shot to get off the Derby schneid.
Michael Maker has had five Derby runners since 2010 with double entries in that first year and in 2011. Remember in 2012 he was part of the flamboyant Team Hansen. This year, Maker has General a Rod, who finished second in the Fountain of Youth.
Kiaran McLaughlin may be poised to get out of this 0-fer club with Cairo Prince. Cairo Prince sits atop many people’s Derby lists after his impressive win in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. McLaughlin has started five horses in the Derby and his first two runners have been his best. In 2005 the 75-1 shot Closing Argument got McLaughlin within a half-length of a Derby win in his first attempt. 50-1 shot Giacomo caught Closing Argument in the final 70 yards to trigger a $9,814 exacta. The following year Jazil finished in a dead-heat for fourth.
Kenny McPeek also got a second place finish in his first Kentucky Derby. In 1995 Tejano Run finished behind the winner, Thunder Gulch. Since then McPeek has had five other starters including Frac Daddy (16th) and Java’s War (13th) in last year’s Run for the Roses.
Bill Mott’s patient training style makes it hard for his younger horses to be ready for the first Saturday in May. Still Mott has had seven Derby starts over the years with an eighth place finish by Favorite Trick in 1998 as his best.
European based Aidan O'Brien, who has had so much success in the Breeders’ Cup, has become a presence in the Kentucky Derby, too. O’Brien has had five starters including one in each of the past three Derbies. His most famous runner Johannesburg finished eighth in 2002. Master of Hounds got fifth place in 2011.
Dale Romans has done quite well with his four Derby runners since 2006. He has two show finishes from Paddy O’ Prado in 2010 and Dullahan in 2012. It is hard to believe that Shackleford was 23-1 when he came in fourth in 2011.
Great trainers with great horses have failed to win the Run for the Roses. Hall of Famers have tried and been unsuccessful. Jimmy Croll couldn’t win it with Bet Twice in 1987 and Holy Bull in 1994. Bobby Frankel ran in the Derby eight times including Medaglia d’Oro in 2002 and Empire Maker in 2003. Elliot Burch finished second twice with Sword Dancer in 1959 and Arts and Letters in 1969.
If your Derby choice does not get to the winner’s circle on May 3rd, please keep this blog in mind and take it easy on the trainers. 


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Older Comments about Trainers Seek that Elusive Kentucky Derby Victory...

ONE THING I was told to NEVER mention to him (well that is if you want him to ever respond to you again later) is the handling of Izvestia. Horse had done enough for syndication. ads in the journals about his services being at Gainesway and then they HAD to race him one more time in the Fall with tragic results. I had noted that he had been fouled in a race in New England on the same back leg that gave way at Woodbine and wondered if that was the reason that he had been off most of that last summer. Topic never to be mentioned so I stayed away.
Coworker is in the vet clinic and I will ask her to talk to him about that
you have to go where the owner wants you to and MORE INPROATNLY , you have to have the colt that could do it at that young age. That latter fact was what Whittingham said was the reason he never went to the Derby
I could understand that, seeing how he likes his turf runners, but on his website for Attfield Racing he states he has always wanted to win the Kentucky Derby. whether it is his first choice or not. I am shocked that after all these years he never trained a horse for an English Classic. Unless I missed that one.
Atfield has suggested that the Derby doesn't interest him much
I have to plug my favorite trainer. Roger Attfield has not won the Kentucky derby. I believe Aiden Obrien had Lines Of Battle last year in the Derby and he finished up 7th.
Anyone one except for Wayne Lukas.. lol I think if Tapiture stays sound, Steve might has this one!
That is an additional interesting stat. Thanks, Bryan! So which first timer will it be this year?
You make an excellent point Kentuckyderbypost. Personally i do not think John Q. Public in general really realizes what a Herculian task it is to win the Derby. I believe roughly 35,000 foals are foaled on a yearly basis.Each comes with the dream that they will be the next one to e drapped with Roses on the first Saturday in May(fillies included) That is a crap shoot if i ever saw one and basically hitting the Lotto. To begin with,a trainer must be lucky just to acquire a talented horse than can compete for starters.Then they must develop them and keep them healthy. I always applaud all trainers that get their hoses into the gate that day. I do understand how difficult it is to get them there. I will defend a trainer ,who really does not need me to do so. Todd Pletcher catches everyones barbs for having such a so called pathetic Derby Record in the past 15 years. Lets see,in that time over 500,000 foals wre foaled,Todd has run i believe 50 of them in the Derby in that time. Come to think about it,after doing the math and still not being able to figure out the true percentage of runners he has trained. Todd,you are a terrible trainer. Naturally i am kidding,but just making a point when people go bonkers over this race. Like i said it is a crap shoot.
Since Lukas won his 4th with Charismatic in ’99 there have only been 2 trainers that scored for a second time or more. (Baffert ’02, Nafzger ’06). That’s 12 first time winners in the last 14 years. Wow.
And then, travel vic, sometimes when the trainer has THE COLT, they still don't win ---> Native Dancer, etc.
read the list of winning trainer to see how many virtual unknowns, comptent trainers, had to have THE COLT to do it NOT THEM.
Mac Miller as well ....Good trainer did not have the colt that could win the race but once
If the trainer does not have tehe COLT, you know the one actually running in the contest, they of course won't have a shot. Look at great ones like Whittingham who waited years before he had THE COLT, that could do the job. Think old Buddy Delp ever had another one? Cam Gambolotti? Louie ROussel? It is the COLT that makes the trianer NOT the other way around.
Asmussen, Mott, McAnally, Mandella and Jerkens ... Clearly the Derby can be a fickle mistress.

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Matt Shifman has been on the Horse Racing Nation staff since 2011 and currently serves as Assistant Editor. Matt covers Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, and Saratoga in his two HRN blogs Racing at the Jersey Shore and New York State of Racing.


Matt’s articles and tweets frequently appear in the America’s Best Racing weekly Notebook. In 2012 he became a voter in the NTRA weekly polls for the Top Thoroughbred and Top Three-Year-Old.


The best way to get to know Matt is to check out some of his favorite articles from the past couple years.

• Preakness Interview with Trainer Todd Pletcher

• Kentucky Derby 2016 Handicapping Tips from A to Z


• Edison: the Travels of a Million Dollar Colt 

• A Kentucky Derby Field with Just 14 Horses

• What is the Best Kentucky Derby Running Style?



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