Stating the derby case across America

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Derby_map_-_MapChart.net
There are 16 states (dark green) that have derbies named for them, one (light green) that still has the race under another name and 15 (red) that used to have them. The other 18 (blue) never had such a race. (MapChart.net graphic)

Louisville, Ky.

There is only one Derby, right? After the Kentucky Derby, there is no other. At least not with the colloquial capital letter.

But there are plenty of other derbies with states in their names, and they are popping up with regularity now. The Ohio Derby was last Saturday. The Iowa Derby is Friday. (Give me Rightandjust at a price.) The Indiana Derby rolls around Wednesday. (I like Fulsome to run his winning streak to four.)

By definition a derby is the domain of 3-year-olds. That was established in 1780, when the first one was staged by the Earl of Derby, a town actually named for the Old English word for a deer hamlet. How we wound up racing horses rather than deer is research for another day, although the idea of winning by an antler feels quaint.

There are 16 states that have eponymous derbies. Thanks to a dive into Equibase and the informative Pedigree Query website, we know there were 16 other states that had derbies and lost them, although the one in Washington is still being run under another name.

Of course, I had to rank them, because that is what websites do.

LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

Kentucky Derby (1875 –). There is no more famous horse race in the whole world. Think about it. What is the first thing anyone thinks of when hearing the word “Kentucky”? OK, put down the bourbon. Now what is the first thing?

REST OF THE BEST

Florida Derby (1952 –). This race has produced 24 Kentucky Derby winners, more than any other prep. Staged early every spring at Gulfstream Park, its list of winners includes icons like Nashua, Northern Dancer, Spectacular Bid and Barbaro. It might as well be Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher’s signature race; he has a record six wins.

Arkansas Derby (1892 –). Hot Springs comes to life with each race day, and it does not get better than Oaklawn for horse lovers and horseplayers. Nearly every April it has been a proving ground for the likes of Curlin, Smarty Jones and Sunny’s Halo. American Pharoah used the Arkansas Derby as a springboard to his Triple Crown in 2015.

Pennsylvania Derby (1979 –). This race has bounced between Philadelphia Park, Keystone and now Parx Racing, where it will be run Sept. 25 for the 10th year in a row – and the fourth time as a Grade 1. It reached the national spotlight in the fall of 2014, when fan favorite California Chrome came in on the heels of his Kentucky Derby and Preakness triumphs only to finish sixth. The winner that day was Bayern, six weeks before his controversial victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Louisiana Derby (1894 –). Even though it has produced only four Kentucky Derby winners, it is the signature race of early spring in the Deep South. For a long time was a parochial race for generations, arguably well into the 1980s. That was when horses like Risen Star, Grindstone and, more recently, Gun Runner staked their claims at Fair Grounds and gave the race a national patina.

SECOND TIER

Iowa Derby (1989 –). First run as the Heartland Derby, this race has been an annual summertime fixture at Prairie Meadows since 1995. Bob Baffert has trained four winners there, including Captain Steve in 2000. That proved to be a steppingstone to a third-place finish to Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a victory the following spring in the Dubai World Cup and earnings totaling $6,828,356 for owner Mike Pegram.

Ohio Derby (1876 –). This race was put on the map when 1924 Kentucky Derby winner Black Gold used it to run his winning streak to seven. Held every year since 1963 at Thistledown near Cleveland, it was nearly killed off when the housing bubble burst in 2008. It was salvaged in the fall of 2009, and it has since become an early-summer Grade 3 feature.

Indiana Derby (1995 –). Run annually for a quarter-century, this race reached a crescendo when Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky showed up to take the trophy in the summer of 2010. When it was moved six years ago from Hoosier Park to Indiana Grand, the race took its current place in the summer.

Virginia Derby (1998 –). This is a rarity. Held every year at Colonial Downs, it is one of only two state-named derbies contested on the turf. Gio Ponti stepped up to Grade 2 competition for the first time when he won the race in the summer of 2008. He would go on to earn $6,169,800 in a career that was decorated with three Eclipse Awards. The 21st renewal of what is now the Grade 3 Virginia Derby will be Aug. 31.

THIRD TIER

Jersey Derby (1864 –). Here is the other turf derby. Shouldn’t this springtime race be called the New Jersey Derby? Be that as it may, what started on the dirt was moved to the Monmouth Park grass in 1993. The most famous edition was in 1985 at old Garden State Park. That was where Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck skipped the Preakness and ran instead in this race, winning it – and a $2 million bonus.

West Virginia Derby (1923 –). Staged in fits and starts at four different tracks from 1923 to 1990, this Grade 3 race has stabilized into an annual event that will be renewed Aug. 7 for the 23rd time in the last 24 years at Mountaineer Park. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen has won it five times, most recently with Tapiture in 2014.

Oklahoma Derby (1989 –). Run every year at Remington Park, this race began in March 1989 with a win by Clever Trevor. It was a steppingstone to his becoming a Grade 1 winner for whom a separate race is named. By 1997 the Oklahoma Derby was moved to September. Sometimes called the Remington Park Derby, it is now a Grade 3.

Texas Derby (1933 –). Nineteen races by this name were sprinkled across two-thirds of a century at Arlington Downs, Sunland Park in New Mexico and Louisiana Downs. The name was revived May 31 for a $300,000 black-type stakes at Lone Star Park that was won by the Brad Cox-trained colt Warrant.

ENTRY LEVEL

California Derby (1873 –). It is hard to imagine a race being run for more years without making so much as a ripple in the racing pond. It used to be the longest running Kentucky Derby prep that never produced a Kentucky Derby winner. The closest it came was 1996, when Pike Place Dancer beat the boys at Golden Gate Fields and went on to win the Kentucky Oaks. Run in late April on the synthetic track in Berkeley, it is no longer on the trail to Louisville.

New York Derby (1969 –). In a state that holds the Belmont Stakes, who knew there was an eponymous derby? Run at Finger Lakes since 1969 and every year from 1977 to 2019, this year’s renewal for $150,000 will take place Monday, July 19. After failing to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, Bankit showed up there two years ago and collected one of his five stakes wins.

Minnesota Derby (1988 –). With the exception of 1993, this race has been run every summer at Canterbury Park and is a showcase for state-bred 3-year-olds. Heliskier may have turned in the most memorable performance, completing a 6-for-6 year with a 13¼-length victory in 2012.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Washington Derby (1934 –). This one needs an asterisk, because it is now known as the Muckleshoot Derby, named for a Native American tribe. The race was known in its past as the Washington Derby, one of its many names as it has bounced mostly between the old Longacres and its current home Emerald Downs.

GONE IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Colorado Derby (1994-2018). Arapahoe Park hosted this race 25 years in a row. Perhaps the most memorable renewal came in 2014, when the Tiznow colt Rebranded won by 12½ lengths. Two months later he was 13th in the Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby.

Illinois Derby (1879-2017). Corporate critics would say this race was killed by Churchill Downs. Back when any old graded-stakes dollars could get a horse into the Kentucky Derby, this was a vital prep. War Emblem won the last running at Sportsman’s Park on his way to winning the roses and the Preakness in 2002. After it was moved to Hawthorne, the Illinois Derby was reduced to minor-league status when Churchill did not make it a Kentucky Derby points prep. In the last six years the race was run only once.

North Dakota Derby (1980-2017). It was a race that existed by name for 32 runnings – but only one in North Dakota. The first 31 were at Assiniboia Downs in neighboring Manitoba. The one and only time it was run on this side of the border was in July 2011 at Chippewa Downs, where the filly Academy’s Win upset five other 3-year-olds that were out of North Dakota-owned mares. There were then five editions of the North Dakota-Bred Derby, but that ended in 2017.

Oregon Derby (1952-2016). Started in 1952, it was run 40 times at Portland Meadows until 2016. The end of the race preceded the end of the track, which was torn down last year. The gelding Hopingandwishing, a 44-time starter whose name was never far from a claim box, won the 2006 renewal by 10¼ lengths.

Nebraska Derby (1971-2005). First run 50 years ago, this springtime race was last run in 2005 on the same day as Giacomo pulled off his 50-1 upset at Churchill Downs. The Straw Man, a gelding, was a 7¼-length winner that evening at Fonner Park for one of his seven Nebraska stakes scores as a 3-year-old. He raced another eight years and retired with 12 wins in 66 starts.

Massachusetts Derby (1984-2002). The race might not have been durable, but its victors seemed to be. Run nine times at Suffolk Downs, its last winner Jill’s Jumpshot outlasted the race, finally being retired after 72 starts. Its best winner, Jini’s Jet in 2001, was an 11-time stakes victor at Suffolk.

GONE IN THE 20TH CENTURY

Alabama Derby (1987-1997). Remember the old Birmingham Turf Club? Too opulent for its own good, it did not last long as a Thoroughbred track, struggling to survive from 1987 to 1995. Intended as a new Kentucky Derby prep, the Alabama Derby crowned Lost Code as its first winner at odds of 7-1. That was as good as it got. The last two runnings were actually at Louisiana Downs in 1996 and 1997.

Montana Derby (1971-1994). Run off and on eight times at MetraPark in Billings, it was last seen in 1994 as a $13,000 race. It was first won by Kelsos Kin, a horse that started 152 times between ages 3 and 12, winning 20 times and accumulating $104,952 in earnings – or $690.47 each time he went to the gate.

South Dakota Derby (1973-1978). Before it was converted to auto racing, Park Jefferson was a trailblazing horse track. In 1958 it offered what would now be called a Pick 6. This race would be run there in August four times in the ’70s, highlighted by a grinder of a gelding. Racing as many as five times in a given month, Dakota Lad started 85 times and won 16. Including his 1976 South Dakota Derby triumph, his $45,654 in lifetime earnings meant he averaged $537.10 per start.

Michigan Derby (1897-1972). By name this race was run in 1879 and 1880 and then not again until 1958, when it started its nearly annual run at Hazel Park. The 1958 winner Hillsdale went on to win the Hollywood Gold Cup the following year before his career ended at Aqueduct with a second-place finish to Sword Dancer in the Woodward.

Arizona Derby (1961-1972). This race was run nine times, off and on, at Turf Paradise. Dee Fondy, a horse named for an old baseball player, may have been the most accomplished of the Arizona Derby winners. He finished first in a couple more handicaps and earned $139,177 from 79 races, mostly in the Midwest.

Maryland Derby (1958-1965). In the land of the Preakness, there actually was a race by this name at Laurel Park. Oddly, four geldings and a filly won the first five runnings. After that, Repeating in 1964 became its best-known winner. At least he was around Maryland, where he won most of his $196,218 in purse money.

ONCE WAS ENOUGH

Idaho Derby (1984). OK, it was really called the Idaho-Bred Derby when it was run its one and only time at Les Bois Park. Kissen Gene won it Aug. 15, 1984, only 10 days after he finished first in an allowance race over the same track. He ended up going 3-for-3 there in a 41-race career that included 29 starts in claiming races, mostly in Canada.

LONG GONE

Tennessee Derby (1884-1906). Starting in the blush of Reconstruction, this race made it through 20 runnings at Montgomery Park in Memphis. Kentucky Derby winners Joe Cotton in 1885 and Agile in 1905 also won this race before a statewide ban on gambling forced the track to be shut down after 1906.

Missouri Derby (1878-1905). Alternatively run as the St. Louis Derby, this fin de siècle race was highlighted in 1886 by Ben Ali’s triumph. It was the same year as he won the Kentucky Derby in the middle of a dispute over whether bookmakers would have to pay an exorbitant $100 licensing fee to operate at Churchill Downs.

NEVER HAD ONE

Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawai‘i, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming have never had such races.

If any of these states ever has a derby in its name, here is hoping its history will be as rich as the other 32.

In addition to this weekly article, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent postings during big events. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week Jonathon Kinchen of Fox Sports discusses the first half of the racing year as well as progress that racing may or may not have made in the past year to answer diversity questions. Trainer Mike Stidham talks about Dubai World Cup winner Mystic Guide, who makes his comeback Saturday in the Suburban Stakes at Belmont Park. South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.

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