How tough is it to win a Kentucky Derby? Well, all you need to know is that the incomparable Charlie Whittingham didn’t win his first until he was 73. He won with Ferdinand in 1986, becoming the oldest trainer to win the Derby. He won it again three years later with Sunday Silence.
How elusive is the Churchill Downs winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May? The late Bobby Frankel, five-time Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s top trainer, never won the Derby. Todd Pletcher, who’s won four Eclipse Awards, is 0 for 24 in the Run for the Roses, though he’s expected to start five more horses in Saturday’s 136th running in an effort to finally break through.
British trainer Jeremy Noseda, who’ll start Awesome Act in Saturday’s Derby, is well aware of just how difficult a race it is to win. He’s heard all the stories, witnessed many hard-luck tales with colts like I Want Revenge and Eskendereya, who may have been good enough to win the race but didn’t make it there because of injury.
“It’s one of the hardest races in the world to win,” Noseda said. “I’ve spent a little time in America, and I say to people (in England) that I think it’s a tougher race to win than the Epsom Derby. I don’t say that in relation to the quality of the horse, but the buildup, training on American tracks, the seasoning they need to go through to arrive there on Kentucky Derby day, and then the race itself is a unique event and it requires an awful amount of luck, whether it be draw or whether it be pace, whether it be traffic in the race.
“I think it’s such a unique contest that you need a huge element of luck, not only to run there on the day, but actually to go and win it on the day. To me, from the outside, there’s something about the Kentucky Derby that makes it an extraordinary, difficult race to win for so many reasons as opposed to our Epsom Derby. I generally believe that in the Epsom Derby, if you’ve got the best horse you’ll go and win the race. I don’t know if that really applies to the Kentucky Derby.”
True enough. Remember Point Given in 2001? Here’s a colt who won the final two legs of the Triple Crown — the Preakness and Belmont — and then the Haskell Invitational and Travers en route to Horse of the Year laurels after finishing fifth in the Derby. He just didn’t like the Churchill Downs surface, a sandy track that many horses just don’t handle.
In the Derby, often times it’s better to be lucky than the best horse in the race.
“That’s not in any way to run the race down, but it’s such a unique event that I think there’s so many other issues that come in to play in the buildup and come the day of the race,” Noseda said. “I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so special, because it’s an extraordinarily tough thing to do.”
Noseda went on to mention Whittingham as an example of just how difficult it is to win the Derby.
“Charlie Whittingham, who was no doubt one of the greatest trainers anywhere in the world, it took him long enough to win it, didn’t it?” he said. “So I don’t think we should look at any trainer and judge him by what happened in the Kentucky Derby. You need the element of luck.”