With his victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) earlier this month capping an undefeated campaign, Game Winner is certain to be named champion two-year-old male when the 2018 Eclipse Award winners are announced in late January.
Typically included with the divisional championship is early favoritism for the Kentucky Derby (G1). How well have juvenile champions fared in the Run for the Roses?
Organized, year-end polling for divisional championships has only existed since 1936, so there is no useful information to glean from the first six decades of Derby history. We do, however, have a good-sized sample of what's happened since.
The first thing to note is that 35 of the past 82 Derbies have not included the previous season's juvenile champion. Whether due to premature retirement, injury, or poor form, more than 40 percent of champions did not make it to the first Saturday in May.
Of the 47 that have, around half have finished either first or second, a commendable accomplishment. Twelve have won the Derby and 11 have run second. A further three ran third while 21 went unplaced.
If you consider a good performance as either winning or placing, the form of juvenile champions in the Derby has been rather cyclical. From 1937-56, the juvenile champion won the Derby three times and finished second six times. Among those runners-up were Bimelech, Alsab, Hill Prince, Native Dancer, Nashua, all of whom wound up as three-year-old champion despite upset losses at Churchill Downs.
The latter half of the 1950s and the 1960s were a rather fallow period for two-year-old champions in the first classic. However, the 1970s, often thought of U.S. racing's "Golden Age," was totally different. Six juvenile champions repeated in the Kentucky Derby -- the decade's three Triple Crown winners plus the Hall of Fame inductees Riva Ridge, Foolish Pleasure, and Spectacular Bid.
A more serious drought followed that lasted more than a quarter-century. From 1980 through 2006, a span of 27 years, more than half the two-year-old champions didn't even make it into the Derby starting gate. Those that did were a mixed bag ability-wise, though the standouts included Chief's Crown, Forty Niner, Easy Goer, and Timber Country, all of whom finished second or third.
Street Sense finally broke the long jinx in 2007, becoming the first divisional champion since Spectacular Bid in 1979 to win the Derby. He was also the first Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner ever to win the Derby.
The seven years following Street Sense were not that strong either, but things have looked up for the freshman champions of late. American Pharoah and Nyquist won the the 2015 and 2016 Derbies, respectively, Classic Empire was a hard-luck fourth in 2017, and Good Magic was second best to Triple Crown winner Justify this year.
Based on depth of accomplishment, Game Winner is one of the stronger-looking juvenile colt champions of recent times, and there are presently few reservations from a pedigree standpoint regarding his ability to go 1 1/4 miles.
There's a long way to go before the 2019 Derby, but Game Winner may have a better-than-average chance of both getting there and performing well.
|YEAR||CHAMPION||DERBY FINISH POSITION|
|1991||Fly So Free||5|
|2004||Action This Day||6|
|2010||Lookin at Lucky||6|