Most Successful Kentucky Derby Trainers, Past and Present

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Often described as the “the most exciting two minutes in sport”, the Kentucky Derby is one of the most anticipated and esteemed horse racing events on the planet. Behind every winning horse, there is a skilled trainer whose dedication, expertise, and knowledge create champions. This article explores the top trainers who have made a lasting impact on horse racing, solidifying their place in history.

Ben Jones

Ben Jones holds the record for the most Kentucky Derby wins by a trainer. He had 6 victories during a fifteen-year span between 1938 and 1952. He has been described as the man “saddling more winners than any trainer in history”, which included Lawrin, winning the Kentucky Derby in 1938 and Hill Gail in 1952. In 1940, Jones was hired by Calumet Farm, one of the most prestigious stables in thoroughbred racing history, where he trained champions, ultimately cementing his place in Kentucky Derby history as one of the best trainers in racing history.
Todd Pletcher

With odds of 3-1 with the sportsbooks listed by Adam Haynes on kentuckyderbybettingsites.net, Fierceness, trained by Todd Pletcher, is the top contender and clear favorite to win the Kentucky Derby this year. Pletcher has won the “Run for the Roses” twice before, with Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017. Todd Pletcher is known for consistently training and developing top contenders including Uncle Mo and Rags to Riches. 

Pletcher has won over 5,500 horse races in his career, making him one of the all-time leading trainers by wins and he is the most successful and accomplished in the sport’s history. His wins include Kentucky Oaks and Champagne Stakes. If Fierceness wins the 2024 Kentucky Derby, it would make Pletcher only the 7th trainer in history with three or more Kentucky Derby victories.

Bob Baffert 

Following in the late great Ben Jones’s footsteps, Bob Baffert is considered one of the greatest trainers of all time. Known as a titan on the turf and his uncanny ability to spot talent, he has successfully won the Kentucky Derby six times. He solidified his name in the history books with the historic Triple Crown victory with American Pharoah. 

Bob Baffert will be notably absent at Churchill Downs this year. He received a suspension after Medina Spirit, the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, failed a post-race drug test and tested positive for an anti-inflammatory steroid. Baffert has refused to accept responsibility for the failed drug test, which led to the disqualification of Medina Spirit, and his suspension.

D. Wayne Lukas
D. Wayne Lukas has made a lasting impact in the history of horse racing, securing four victories in The Kentucky Derby. His winning horses include:

  • Winning Colors in 1988
  • Thunder Gulch in 1995
  • Grindstone in 1996
  • Charismatic in 1999

Each win showcases his strategic skills as a trainer, which should not come as a surprise. D. Wayne Lukas is described as the first trainer to win six consecutive Triple Crown races with a total of fourteen impressive Triple Crown wins in his career. He is considered to be one of the most accomplished trainers and has rightfully earned his place in the Hall of Fame.

Nick Zito

Nick Zito has won the Kentucky Derby twice in 1991 and 1994, with Strike the Gold and Go for Gin He is known as a “Triple Crown spoiler”, denying Smarty Jones and Big Brown the Triple Crown in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Regardless, Zito has trained several Kentucky Derby winners, including Go for Gin in 1994. Nick Zito is considered a highly accomplished and decorated Hall of Fame trainer, best known for winning multiple Triple Crown races and the Kentucky Derby. 

His first Kentucky Derby win came in 1991 with Strike for Gold with jockey Chris Antley guiding the steed to victory. He captured the attention of racing fans, ultimately winning the Kentucky Derby a second time in 1994, solidifying his reputation as a masterful trainer of classic contenders. His contribution to horse racing and promoting the humane treatment of active and retired racehorses cements his legacy as one of the most proficient figures in the history of the Kentucky Derby.

Trainers to Watch in 2024

Besides Fierceness, the top three contenders for the Kentucky Derby in 2024 are Sierra Leone, Catching Freedom, and the underdog, Disarm:

Chad Brown – Sierra Leone

Chad Brown has been making waves in the horse racing world, with top contender, Sierra Leone, poised to win the Kentucky Derby by many online betting platforms. With odds of 3-1, Sierra Leone is named as the second choice to take the title, after Fierceness. Chad Brown started his career working as an assistant to famed trainer, Bobby Frankel. He has since won fifteen Breeder’s Cup races, winning his first race with Ginger Punch in 2007.

Brown has trained several champion horses including Lady Eli and Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar. In 2017, Brown won his first Triple Crown race with Cloud Computing and won numerous Eclipse Awards as the Outstanding Trainer back-to-back in 2021 and 2022. Brown is set to make history if Sierra Leone wins the Derby in 2024.

Under his wing, Sierra Leone won the esteemed Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes, a key Kentucky Derby Prep race. Chad Brown’s horse followed that up by winning the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, firmly establishing himself as a highly respected trainer and has a very good chance of taking the title this year.

Brad Cox – Catching Freedom

As one of the top contenders expected to win the Kentucky Derby, Catching Freedom’s strong performance is a testament to trainer Brad Cox’s diligent approach to horse care and ability to identify winners. Brad Cox’s career started as an assistant to Burk Kessinger and Jimmy Baker. In 2004, Cox won his first race at Turfway Park with One Lucky Storm.

His career highlights include finding success winning his first graded stakes in 2014, before winning his first Grade 1 race with Monomy Girl in 2018. In 2021 Cox won his first Triple Crown. Catching Freedom trained by Cox won the 2021 Kentucky Derby via disqualification, however, is described as a top contender with the stamina to handle Churchill Downs 1 ¼  mile track, considering his impressive performances in major prep races. 

Steve Asmussen – Disarm

In 2022, Epicenter made history in the Kentucky Derby sportsbooks for being the most heavily bet on a horse to win the race. A record $179.0 million was bet in the pari-mutuel pool, with a $1.5 million bet placed on Epicenter by a businessman from Houston. As the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, Epicenter came in second, with Rich Strike eventually winning. Epicenter’s trainer, Steve Asmussen is no stranger to the racing world. His father Keith was a retired jockey, and his mother Marilyn was a horse trainer.

Asmussen is described as one of the most accomplished trainers, winning an Eclipse award twice in 2008 and 2009. He has collected more wins, more than 9400, than any other trainer in North America, yet a first-place finish in the Kentucky Derby win could be in the books in 2024, with thoroughbred Disarm.

Disarm, considered the underdog with a very good chance of winning, turned in the fastest 5-furlong workout in Churchill Downs. Most experts agree that despite having one win in five starts, Disarm could potentially finish in third place, possibly upsetting many predictions from betting platforms. Although Disarm may not be a firm favorite, with an expert trainer like Steve Asmussen, Disarm has a good chance of “disarming” the top contenders.