How has the winning time of the Kentucky Derby changed over time?
Today, that champion Thoroughbred’s winning time would hardly earn him third place in a typical Kentucky Derby, where victorious horses have run the iconic race in an average of about two minutes and two seconds from 2012 to 2021.
While a number of factors have influenced the uptick in speed of the fastest two minutes in sports over the last century, the Kentucky Derby has actually gotten almost a second slower over the past few decades.
Below we explore how the average winning Kentucky Derby time has transformed over history and pinpoint the reason such changes have transpired in the Run for the Roses.
...the Kentucky Derby has actually gotten almost a second slower over the past few decades.
The early days of the Kentucky Derby
While Ben Brush would face difficulty competing with today’s three-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby, his winning time of 2:07.75 was exactly 30 seconds faster than that of Aristides, who won the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, when the Classic was raced at 1 1/2 miles.
From 1875 to 1895, racing fans witnessed a winning Derby time no quicker than 2:34.5, as accomplished by Spokane in 1889, and no more sluggish than 2:52.25 — the slowest winning Derby time in history, run by Kingman in 1891, when riders were ordered to stay off the lead until the final stretch, thus resulting in the four-horse field cantering side by side, like a cavalry, for much of the race.
When members of the racing community criticized the 1 1/2-mile distance as too long for three-year-old Thoroughbreds, the Derby was shortened by about two furlongs in 1896. For the next two decades, winning horses finished the event in an average of 2:09.31, before the Derby saw a three-second improvement by winning horses, who completed the race in an average of 2:06.48 from 1912 to 1931.
The span of 1932 to 1951 experienced yet another two-second improvement (an average of 2:04.46) to first-place times. That timeframe welcomed six Triple Crown winners — Omaha in 1935 (2:05.0), War Admiral in 1937 (2:03.2), Whirlaway in 1941 (2:01.4), Count Fleet in 1943 (2:04), Assault in 1946 (2:06.6), and Citation in 1948 (2:05.4). It also included the involvement of two legendary trainers, Ben Jones and Jim Fitzsimmons, who were in a class of their own.
Jones saddled 11 Kentucky Derby horses from 1938 to 1952 and achieved an 11-6-2-1 record in that time. Fitzsimmons conditioned 11 Kentucky Derby horses as well, and went 11-3-1-0 from 1930 to 1957.
The period of 1952 to 1961 was void of a Triple Crown winner but did produce another two-second boost in the average winning time, now 2:02.76. Over the course of 65 years of Kentucky Derby races, progress in training and breeding had produced a seven-second uptick in the average winning time, but the next two decades would usher in a golden era for Thoroughbred racing.
Secretariat and the golden age of racing
From 1962 to 1981, the average winning Derby time hit its peak at 2:01.76. The influence of bloodlines from top sires, like Bold Ruler, were beginning to manifest in a number of champion horses, including two of the era's three Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and the speediest Derby runner of all — Secretariat.
In front of a then-record crowd of 134,476 attendees on May 5, 1973, Secretariat, known as “Big Red,” etched his name in history with the fastest winning Derby time ever (1:59.4), besting second-place finisher Sham by 2 1/2 lengths.
As the 13-horse field broke from the gate, the Lucien Laurin trainee settled near the back of the pack before launching a wide rally, in which he ran every quarter mile faster than the previous. His last quarter-mile in 23 seconds set another record for the Derby, while Sham’s finishing time of 1:59 4/5 also broke a previous course record but is largely overshadowed by his famous rival.
Secretariat was considered a “freak” among the racing world, a label that seemed all the more appropriate when his necropsy report in 1989 revealed that the chestnut’s heart weighed between 21 and 22 pounds. For comparison, the average Thoroughbred heart weighs 8.5 pounds.
Although his larger-than-life features and near-perfect conformation helped the Triple Crown champion become arguably the greatest racehorse of all time, much more was at play during his epic 1 1/4-mile conquest at Churchill Downs.
Weather creates a wrinkle in the fastest two minutes in sports
A handful of factors led to Secretariat’s sub-two-minute victory in the Run for the Roses, one of which helped Monarchos nearly match his time in 2001.
On both May 5, 1973 and May 5, 2001, there was zero 24-hour precipitation, which facilitated a fast track and a near-perfect environment for both horses to run an optimal race in the Kentucky Derby.
“The best condition I ever had was a Derby like in 2001, we had a temperature of 84,” said former Churchill Downs track superintendent Raymond “Butch” Lehr, who held the role from 1982 to 2012, before accepting a similar position at Kentucky Downs. “It was really unseasonably warm and the conditions were perfect.”
As far back as 1967, when Lehr joined the track’s maintenance crew, he kept detailed records of each Derby. He witnessed both sub-two-minute victories by Secretariat and Monarchos, and also watched his fair share of slower Derbys, which he attributes to one main element — weather.
“Weather is the biggest thing that can affect the track,” Lehr said. “I used to joke to people, The Weather Channel was my favorite show. … I don’t think the track is slower now than it was in the ‘70s, I just think the weather is different.”
Following the decade in which Secretariat made history at Churchill Downs, the average winning Kentucky Derby time registered between 2:02.07 to 2:02.60 in the 80s, 90s, the early 2000s, and the most recent decade of races.
Lehr noted one track update, a resurfacing in 1983 that altered the composition of the dirt, which went from 99% sand to 75% sand, 23% silt, and 2% clay. But he believes the near-extra-second of time added to the winning average correlates more with a shift in the weather on the first Saturday in May. From 1959 to 1988, all but three Derbys were run on a fast track, with the exception of 1960, 1961, and 1970, each conducted on a “good” track.
In 1989, Sunday Silence crossed the finish line first in 2:05.00, the slowest winning time since Tim Tam in 1958, with both horses navigating a muddy track. In 1994, Go for Gin recorded a 2:03.72 winning time on a sloppy track during a stormy First Saturday in May, the final in a stretch of six consecutive wet Derby Days, based on precipitation measured from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. ET on race day.
The span of 1995 to 2003 offered reprieve from "off-track" races, with every Derby conducted on a fast track, including Monarchos’ feat in 2001.
“Horses run faster when it’s hot. ... On a hot, humid day, I’ve seen our track speed up as much as a full second," Lehr explained. "They claimed the track was speed-biased, but yet Monarchos … came from way off the pace and won the Kentucky Derby in the fastest time since Secretariat. ... Later on, (trainer) John Ward called me personally and said, ‘my horse is capable of running that fast.’ And I said, ‘he did run that fast, but the conditions were perfect that day.’”
Three years later, the conditions were nearly the opposite in 2004, when then-undefeated Smarty Jones steered through a sloppy track in 2:04.06.
Fast-forward another three years, and rain had virtually become the norm on the first Saturday in May. From 2007 to 2013, precipitation was present over the 24-hour period leading up to the Derby each year, and in that time, four Derbys were run on sloppy tracks, with the average winning time equaling 2:02.55.
Road to the Kentucky Derby changes landscape of race
Another interesting caveat entered the fold in 2013, in addition to increasingly wet weather. The Kentucky Derby introduced the points system in which horses qualify for the event based on select stakes races for two- and three-year-old Thoroughbreds. Prior to 2013, the Derby qualifying system was based on earnings from all graded stakes races worldwide, and the types of horses who joined the field were far more diverse, as a result.
One-dimensional sprinters are uncommon in today’s Derby field, which has in turn affected the pace of the race since 2013.
A look at the top 10 fastest winning Derby times provides further evidence. If you throw out the outlier of Authentic’s 2:00.61 finish on the first Saturday in September — when the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Derby to a warm, dry day in the summer — no horse has achieved a sub-2:01 winning time since 2001.
Six of the top 10 fastest winning Derby times occurred the same year a top-15 record was set at the 3/4-mile marker. Monarchos got help from Songandaprayer, a winning sprinter, who clocked a quarter-mile in :22.25, ran a half-mile in a record :44.86, and set another record at three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.25. Ultimately, the son of Unbridled’s Song tired and placed 13th, but set a hot pace for Congaree to push to the front of the pack and hit a 1:35.0 split at one mile, before Monarchos caught Congaree approaching the final sixteenth and drew clear.
A year prior, Hal’s Hope established a hot pace with a 1:09.99 split at three-quarters of a mile, only to tire and place 16th, but he opened the door for Fusaichi Pegasus to come from far off the pace to make up ground in the final quarter and win the Derby in 2:01.12, just outside the top 10 fastest winning times in history.
Since 2013, the average winning time is 2:02.69, with Derby field composition and weather both at play in the slight decline of first-place finishing times.
Advancement in timekeeping
Aside from the progress made in breeding, updates to Derby qualification, and changes in weather, another important factor has played a part in the variance of the average winning Derby time over the last century.
The way in which the race is timed has met significant advancement, with today’s event measured in 1/100ths of a second.
Prior to 2000, the race was timed to 1/5 of a second, and prior to 1906, the race was timed to 1/4 second.
Secretariat's sub-two-minute romp is technically somewhere between 1:59.4 and 1:59.6, but would still beat out Monarchos' 1:59.97 finish.
The Triple Crown winner's Preakness S. (G1) time is a testament to the error-prone nature of timekeeping procedures of the past. Upon crossing the finish line at Pimlico, the infield teletimer flashed 1:55, but it had malfunctioned from damage caused by people crossing the track to reach the infield. Two independent clockers from the Daily Racing Form hand-timed the race at 1:53 2/5, which sparked a controversial debate that was only later resolved in 2012, when the Maryland Racing Commission voted unanimously to change the official time from 1:54 2/5 to 1:53, a stakes record.
The future of Kentucky Derby-winning times
It's been nearly half a century since Secretariat set the Derby track record at 1 1/4 miles, with just one winning horse coming close to toppling him since.
Despite the ever-growing wealth of knowledge and resources at trainers' and breeders' disposal, Thoroughbreds are not getting faster at the fastest two minutes in sports.
When a horse does run close to two minutes flat, it takes far more than a supreme pedigree, top-notch training regimen, and a near-perfect ride by the jockey. It also requires a warm, dry weather forecast that promotes a fast track fit for speed — something no one is capable of controlling on race day.
The men's 100-meter world record has been set or equaled at least 20 times since 1973, but training, nutrition, and track surfaces have all advanced significantly in the sport, compared to horse racing.
Selective breeding is partially responsible for the improvement in the average winning Derby time over the first half of the 20th century, but it may have reached a plateau. Recognized as a separate breed since the 1700s, Thoroughbreds are now less genetically diverse than other horse breeds. Ninety-five percent of all Thoroughbreds descend from the Darley Arabian, and an estimated 75% come from one of 30 ancestors, so the gene pool is limited.
Thoroughbreds are now less genetically diverse than other horse breeds
Another reason winning Derby times may not change much going forward is the lack of motivation to get faster. Human athletes attempt to run their best possible race, but horse racing connections are less concerned with how fast their horse crosses the finish line; only that their horse crosses it first.
Thus, the Kentucky Derby likely will not get any faster without a substantial update to one of the many variables that impact the final time recorded by the first-place finisher, such as track surface, selective breeding philosophy, or training tactics.
The fastest two minutes in sports will probably remain at just about two minutes and two seconds for the foreseeable future, but the prospect of all the right circumstances coming together to make history at Churchill Downs is part of what makes those two minutes so exciting.