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It's a Big Change: A Kentucky Derby in September

by Jon White

March 19, 2020

The Kentucky Derby, this country’s most famous horse race, has been held on the first Saturday in May for decades. It had been scheduled to be run this year on May 2. But as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs has been shifted to Sept. 5.

Churchill also announced that this year’s Kentucky Oaks has been moved from May 1 to Sept. 4.

You have to go all the way back to 1945 for the last time the Kentucky Derby was not held in May. It was contested on June 6 that year. With legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro aboard, Hoop Jr. defeated 15 foes and won by six lengths on a muddy track for owner Fred W. Hooper and trainer Ivan Parke.

Switching the Kentucky Derby to Sept. 5 this year means we will have a different Triple Crown from what had become traditional dates on the calendar for the three races. It had become customary for the Kentucky Derby to be on the first Saturday in May, followed two weeks later by the Preakness Stakes, with the Belmont Stakes then taking place three weeks after the Preakness.

“The Derby is, of course, the first leg of the Triple Crown, the most high-profile series of races in American Thoroughbred racing, and rescheduling the Derby to Sept. 5 will have an enormous impact on the remainder of the U.S. racing calendar and the economic performance of competing tracks,” Daily Racing Form’s Matt Hegarty wrote. “That impact is unclear, but if the other hosts of the Triple Crown races decide to stick to the traditional spacing of the events, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore would be held on Sept. 19 and the Belmont Stakes in New York on Oct. 10. That is no certainty, however.”

Indications are the Preakness Stakes also might be moved to September. As for when the Belmont will be run, in a Daily Racing Form story posted online Tuesday written by David Grening, NYRA president and CEO Dave O’Rourke said, “We’re still just starting the conversation with all the stake holders…We’re at the beginning of assessing it and we won’t have a response for the next few days, maybe next week. There are a lot of things to deal with; this is really important but it falls pretty far back when you consider the immediate issues at hand.”

If this year’s Triple Crown does turn out to be different from what we have become accustomed to in terms of the race order and/or spacing, keep in mind it has had different permutations.

There have been years in which the Preakness was run before the Kentucky Derby. And how about what occurred in 1917 and 1922? In those two years, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were held on the same day!

When Hoop Jr. captured the Kentucky Derby in 1945, the Triple Crown series was scrunched into a three-week window that year stemming from the United States being in the throes of World War II.

In 1945, the Kentucky Derby was run on June 9, the Preakness on June 16 and the Belmont on June 23.

In the book “The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes: A Comprehensive History,” Richard Sowers wrote: “Despite Hoop Jr.’s runaway Derby victory, neither Parke nor anyone else was discussing Triple Crown possibilities because of a war-mandated compact schedule.”


I often have addressed how horses used to be much more experienced going into the Kentucky Derby than has been the case in recent years. Changing the date of this year’s Run for the Roses will allow additional time for 3-year-olds to gain valuable racing experience before they are asked to go 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in September.

Consider Bob Baffert’s situation. His strength at this time vis-a-vis the 2020 Kentucky Derby is reflected by the fact he trains four horses on my Kentucky Derby Top 10, a list that I have updated this week following the announcement that the race now will be run on Sept. 5.

Baffert is the trainer of No. 1 Charlatan, No. 2 Nadal, No. 4 Authentic and No. 9 Thousand Words.

Charlatan has raced just twice to date. Nadal and Authentic each have started only three times. Thousand Words has but four races under his belt.

I think it’s quite feasible that Charlatan, Nadal, Authentic and Thousand Words all are eligible to benefit from getting a chance to race more prior to a Kentucky Derby that has been moved to September.

I especially believe it’s possible the extra time will be a big plus for Charlatan, who is two for two while exhibiting brilliance in his two victories by a combined 16 lengths. It’s one of the reasons I have moved him to the top spot on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week.

Nadal is three for three. Whereas Charlatan has yet to run in a stakes race, Nadal is a two-time graded stakes winner. Nadal took Santa Anita’s Grade II San Vicente Stakes at seven furlongs by three-quarters of a length on Feb. 9 and Oaklawn Park’s Grade II Rebel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles by the same margin last Saturday.

Authentic, like Nadal, is three for three and a two-time graded stakes winner. Authentic has victories in Santa Anita’s Grade III Sham Stakes on Jan. 4 and Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 7 on his resume.

Baffert recently described Charlatan, Nadal and Authentic as “three pretty wicked amigos.”

Ain’t it the truth.

Even though the Kentucky Derby won’t be run until September this year, it is clear Baffert currently has the ammunition to take a serious run at yet another victory in this race. He has won it five times (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018).

Ben Jones is the only trainer with more Kentucky Derby victories than Baffert. Jones has six such wins to his credit (Laurin in 1938, Whirlaway in 1941, Pensive in 1944, Citation in 1948, Ponder in 1949 and Hill Gail in 1952).

As for Thousand Words, I have not totally given up on him, as a number of others seem to have done. He has dropped off many a Top 10 after his disappointing effort in Santa Anita’s Grade II San Felipe Stakes on March 7 in which he finished fourth, 11 1/4 lengths behind the winner.

But the San Felipe was Thousand Words’ first career loss. I do not want to overreact to just one loss. Thousand Words therefore remains on my Top 10.

I certainly would not rule out seeing Thousand Words rebound in his next race. Don’t forget the $1 million yearling was good enough to win the Grade II Los Alamitos Futurity last year and Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes this year prior to the San Felipe.

Along with the Baffert-trained quartet on my Top 10, the Hall of Fame horseman currently has no less than three other possibilities for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby in Eight Rings, High Velocity and Azul Coast.

Eight Rings sports some good recent workouts at Santa Anita. He has not started since finishing sixth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita last Nov. 1. Eight Rings won the Grade I American Pharoah Stakes by six lengths at Santa Anita prior to the Breeders’ Cup.

High Velocity and Azul Coast both had been entered in this Sunday’s Grade II Sunland Derby, but unfortunately that race has been canceled.

Winner of the Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar last Nov. 16, High Velocity ran third in both the Los Al Futurity and the aforementioned Lewis at Santa Anita.

Azul Coast finished second in Santa Anita’s Sham Stakes on Jan. 4. He subsequently won the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 15.

Speaking of the Sham Stakes, Authentic won that race by nearly eight lengths. He then took the San Felipe by 3 1/4 lengths.

By the calendar, if the Kentucky Derby had been held on its original date of May 2, Authentic would have still been a 2-year-old on that date. He’s a May 5 foal. A Kentucky Derby in September definitely could help such a late foal.

Honor A.P. is No. 3 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10. I felt it was a terrific performance on his part to finish second in the San Felipe in that it was his first start since last Oct. 13, his first race against winners and his stakes debut.

Considering Honor A.P. has just three races under his belt at this point, I believe he could become one tough dude for trainer John Sherriffs by the time we get to the first Saturday in September.

Baffert, Sherriffs and everyone else must now deal with a Kentucky Derby being held in September for the first time. Baffert had been worried the race would be canceled this year, like so many other sporting events. In a video tweeted by Fred Cowgill, sports director for Louisville’s television station WLKY, Baffert expressed his relief that the Kentucky Derby is still scheduled to be run this year. The white-haired trainer also put the race itself into perspective in relation to the catastrophic coronavirus pandemic.

Reacting to a Kentucky Derby now scheduled for Sept. 5, Baffert said: “Changing the date, I know it’s probably not optimal...But at the end of the day, it’s just a horse race. I worry more about the people who have jobs that are losing jobs, people in America. Hopefully this thing will pass. And I’m just for, right now, going along whatever they think [at Churchill Downs]. I’m sure they’re thinking about health comes first. The Derby, at least it’s not canceled.”


Another 3-year-old who seemingly could benefit -- perhaps significantly so -- from a Kentucky Derby in September instead of May is Maxfield. Thus, I have elevated him to No. 5 this week after he had been No. 7 last week.

Maxfield underwent surgery last Nov. 18 in Kentucky for the removal of what had been reported to be a mildly displaced ankle chip. The Kentucky-bred Street Sense colt, trained by Brendan Walsh, had been on a very tight schedule to possibly make a May 2 Kentucky Derby. Now there is plenty of time for Maxfield to be ready for a Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5.

Last Saturday in Florida at Palm Meadows, Maxfield worked five furlongs in 1:01.80.

“He went very good, with a good, strong gallop-out,” Walsh told Daily Racing Form’s Marty McGee.

After it was announced that the Kentucky Derby has been moved to Sept. 5, Walsh told the DRF, “Obviously, this gives us more time to help prepare him properly.”

Jon White's current Top 10 for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby:

1. Charlatan
2. Nadal
3. Honor A.P.
4. Authentic
5. Maxfield
6. Tiz the Law
7. Ete Indien
8. Sole Volante
9. Thousand Words
10. King Guillermo


At Santa Anita on Feb. 16, Charlatan was a dazzling maiden winner at first asking when he completed six furlongs in a scorching 1:08.85 to win by 5 3/4 lengths.

At that same venue last Saturday, Charlatan stretched out to one mile in sensational fashion. The Kentucky-bred Speightstwon colt won an allowance/optional claiming affair by 10 1/4 lengths in 1:36.24.

In the very next race on the Santa Anita card, the 4-year-old filly Ce Ce took the Grade I Beholder Mile by 3 1/4 lengths in 1:37.33.

While drawing away from his foes, Charlatan ran the final furlong in :12.90. Ce Ce covered her final furlong in :14.08 while in the process of increasing her lead.

Charlatan was credited with a 106 Beyer Speed Figure. Ce Ce recorded a 100 Beyer.

What Charlatan has done in his first two career starts from a Beyer Speed Figure standpoint is nothing less than outstanding. Let’s take a look at his first two career Beyers compared to some others:

--Charlatan (a 105 in his career debut, then a 106 in 2020)

--Justify (a 104 in his career debut, then a 101 in 2018)

--Curlin (a 102 in his career debut, then a 99 in 2007)

--Pulpit (a 107 in his career debut, then a 108 in 1997)

--Formal Gold (a 112 in his career debut, then a 100 in 1996)

After Justify’s initial two starts, he won the Grade I Santa Anita Derby before becoming the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner.

Here is something else to ponder. Charlatan registered a 106 Beyer Speed Figure in his second career start. American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner, did not record a Beyer higher than 106 until credited with a 109 in his ninth career start, a victory in the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.

As if the above accolades for Charlatan aren’t enough, his Feb. 16 maiden win was flattered last Sunday when Shooters Shoot won a one-mile maiden special weight race at Santa Anita by 3 1/4 lengths and recorded a 92 Beyer. Shooters Shoot had finished second when no match for Charlatan on Feb. 16.


It is easy for people to rave about a runaway winner like Charlatan in his two races so far. It takes more of a keen eye to recognize just how marvelous Nadal’s performance was last Saturday to take the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Racing on a sloppy track, Nadal won the 1 1/16-mile Rebel by three-quarters of a length in 1:44.97. He received a 96 Beyer Speed Figure.

Nadal’s 96 Beyer was 10 below Charlatan’s on the same day. But it took a very special colt to do what Nadal did in winning the Rebel. The strapping Kentucky-bred Blame colt, ridden by Joel Rosario, had to run hard for every step of the race. In this regard, for me, it brought to mind Justify’s victory in the 2015 Preakness.

Hall of Famer Mike Smith rode Justify in the Preakness. If the colt had been all alone in front while running the first quarter in :23.11 and half in :47.19, that would have been one thing. But Justify did so while engaged in a fierce head-and-head duel with Good Magic, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male champion of 2017. In other words, regardless of the fractions not being faster than :23.11 and :47.19, it was no leisurely pace being set by Justify.

The duel between Justify, the 2-5 favorite, and Good Magic, the 7-2 second choice, continued on for furlong…after furlong…after furlong. Just inside the sixteenth pole, it appeared for a brief moment that Justify was in good shape. He had increased his lead to about a length after finally racing Good Magic into submission. But in the final yards, after Justify had worked so hard to at long last put away Good Magic, the overwhelming favorite had to hold off late charges from both Bravazo and Tenfold.

Most horses would have won the battle with Good Magic only to then lose the war. But Justify demonstrated in the Preakness that he was not like most horses. He had enough gas left in the tank approaching the finish to win the war by holding off both Bravazo and Tenfold.

While many came away disappointed that Justify did not win by more than he did, Smith was impressed that the colt was able to win despite being “tested more than he ever had been before.”

The next day when talking about Justify’s Preakness victory, Smith said to Mike Willman on his radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles: “It ain’t always pretty. Sometimes you gotta win ugly. Even the great Secretariat got beat. This is a horse who was in a dogfight for a good seven-eighths of a mile and still held off the competition. We should be commending him and not looking at him winning by only half a length.

“So many great horses we’ve seen win by a length, a half a length, a nose sometimes. Even the great Zenyatta won most of her races by a nose or a head. It’s just part of it, but people expected [Justify] to draw off and win by 10. Well, he showed more to me than drawing off and winning by 10. That was very impressive for him to get into a dogfight and prevail. We’ve seen him draw off and win so many times that you didn’t know what would happen when someone looked him in the eye.”

I consider Nadal’s effort in the Rebel to have been, to a large extent, similarly admirable to Justify’s in the Preakness.

In the run to the first turn, Nadal vied for the early advantage with No Parole. No Parole had come into the race having won all three of his career starts by a combined 34 lengths, albeit in races restricted to Louisiana-breds.

On the first turn, a fresh American Theorem, who was making his 2020 debut, rushed up to engage Nadal and No Parole for the lead. The preliminary fractions of :22.89 and :46.00 were swift.

After being involved in such a hot early pace, both American Theorem and No Parole faltered badly in the final quarter of a mile. American Theorem lost by 27 1/4 lengths. No Parole got beat by 49 lengths.

Considering the early pace, Nadal had every right to also throw in the towel in the last quarter of a mile. Yet he came home well enough to win, but not before having to stave off bids from Three Technique and Silver Prospector near the top of the lane, then Excession in deep stretch while he and Excession drew well clear of the rest of the field.

Excession gave it a good try at odds of 82-1, but could not pull off the upset. Nadal got the job done as the 9-10 favorite, then also remained in front after the finish while galloping out, which again was impressive after he had to run hard during the entire race.

Nadal proved much with this triumph. It was his first race around two turns and on a wet track. He also proved he can succeed when shipping away from his home base at Santa Anita.

Charlatan and Nadal both are very talented. Nadal has yet to be tested, while Nadal now is battle-tested after winning both Santa Anita’s Grade II San Vicente Stakes at seven furlongs on Feb. 9 and the longer Rebel, each by three-quarters of a length.


In reaction to the Kentucky Derby being moved to Sept. 5, some tracks are contemplating an adjustment to their stakes schedule.

Oaklawn Park’s Grade I Arkansas Derby is scheduled for April 11. Daily Racing Form’s Mary Rampellini reported that Oaklawn’s president, Lou Cella, said the track “has been in discussions with a number of factions to determine the best date for the 1 1/8-mile race.”

Cella said with the current landscape of preps all geared to the first Saturday in May, it might make sense to run the Arkansas Derby later in the Oaklawn meeting that currently is scheduled to be adjourned on May 2.

“For the horseman with a promising 3-year-old, is it best for him to race on April 11 or race on May 2?” said Cella.

Cella said decisions would be made in the near future to allow horsemen time to adjust training schedules.

Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen reported that Del Mar officials held discussions on Tuesday “about including a stakes race at its summer meet designed as a prep for the scheduled Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Sept. 5.”

Del Mar has one open stakes race on the dirt for 3-year-olds, the one-mile Shared Belief Stakes, which last year was run on the final Sunday of August. To provide a Kentucky Derby prep, Del Mar could move the Shared Belief and perhaps alter its distance, or create a new race, Andersen wrote.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has won the Kentucky Derby four times (Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995, Grindstone in 1996 and Charismatic in 1999). He shared some interesting thoughts with Rampellini in terms of the Kentucky Derby being repositioned to Sept. 5.

“It’s going to change the dynamics, going to change the field, I think quite a lot,” Lukas said. “I personally don’t think they’ll get 20. A number of things could happen.

“Through the summer, as people develop 3-year-olds, a certain amount will fall by the wayside, and for a certain amount, reality will settle in. In April and May, everybody thinks they have a Derby horse. In September, reality may set in. It will sort them out. Some will say, ‘I don’t know if I want to put up $50,000 [to run]. They might get a smaller field, with more of a realistic field as far as handicapping.”


Back in 1999, I developed my Derby Strikes System. It consists of nine key factors. When a horse does not qualify in one of the nine categories, the horse gets a strike.

The purpose of the Derby Strikes System is to try and ascertain a horse’s chance to win the Kentucky Derby from both tactical and historical perspectives. But that is when the Kentucky Derby was held on the first Saturday in May.

For all intents and purposes, the Derby Strikes System has been rendered inapplicable this year as a result of switching Kentucky Derby from May 2 to Sept. 5.


Below is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 387 Midnight Bisou (32)
2. 318 Mucho Gusto
3. 283 Zulu Alpha (1)
4. 172 Mr Freeze
5. 123 Maximum Security (7)
6. 108 Combatant
7. 97 Serengeti Empress
8. 94 Code of Honor
9. 60 McKinzie
10. 53 Starship Jubilee

Below is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll:

1. 350 Authentic (13)
2. 346 Tiz the Law (16)
3. 337 Nadal (6)
4. 211 Ete Indien (1)
5. 190 Charlatan (4)
6. 160 Honor A.P.
7. 121 Sole Volante
8. 66 Gouverneur Morris
9. 61 King Guillermo
10. 55 Mischevious Alex