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Ranking the Most Successful Trainers in Kentucky Derby History

Jessica PaquetteFeatured ColumnistApril 29, 2014

Ranking the Most Successful Trainers in Kentucky Derby History

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The elusive Kentucky Derby trophy and blanket of roses are the things that Thoroughbred trainers dream of.

    Some trainers will spend their entire career chasing that pinnacle milestone and never even get a horse in the starting gate of Churchill Downs.

    Some have been fortunate enough to have not just one, but multiple Kentucky Derby winners throughout their legendary careers.

    Others are perennial power players in the sport yet, as Todd Pletcher, have struggled on Thoroughbred racing's greatest stage.

    The Kentucky Derby is the race that defines careers.

    Each January, every trainer in the country with a three-year-old showing any hint of talent is smelling roses. It takes a good trainer to separate the true contenders from the promising pretenders, and a truly great trainer to take them to the winner's circle.

    Success in the Kentucky Derby is defined as more than just the number of wins or number of appearances. Some are regarded as Derby elite because of one masterful training job or by knowing how to pick their spot. 

    Here is a look at the most successful trainers in Kentucky Derby history. Read on to see who represents the best of their sport.

7. Graham Motion

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    The masterful Graham Motion
    The masterful Graham MotionMark Lennihan

    In 2011, Graham Motion orchestrated one of the greatest training jobs in recent memory, pulling off the 20-1 Derby shocker with Animal Kingdom.

    Though he does not have the sheer quantity of Derby starters as perennial powerhouse Todd Pletcher, Motion has taken the quality over quantity approach.

    Prior to Animal Kingdom's triumph in the Run for the Roses, Motion had only sent out two prior starters in the Kentucky Derby—Chilito in 1998 and Adriano in 2008.

    While those two runners were not as successful, this is a trainer who only sends horses with a legitimate shot at placing.

    In 2012, he tried for a repeat with Went the Day Well, yet only managed to finish fourth.

    Though he does not have the gaudy statistics and big numbers of some of his contemporaries, he will surely add another Kentucky Derby trophy or two to his mantle before the end of his career. 

6. Ben Jones

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    If one is judging solely by the numbers, then Ben Jones must be on that list.

    With six Derby wins, Jones has the distinction of saddling more winners than any trainer in history.

    His string of successes began in 1938 with Lawrin and continued through 1952 with Hill Gail. Most notable of his six champions was Citation, who in 1948 became the eighth winner of the Triple Crown.

    Inducted in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 1958, Jones had much of his career success with historic Calumet Farm. With Jones at the helm, Calumet horses won five installments of the Kentucky Derby.

5. Carl Nafzger

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    Julie Jacobson

    Carl Nafzger means business when he sends a horse to the Kentucky Derby.

    He made his Derby debut in 1990 a winning one with a stirring run by Unbridled, and while his return nine years later with Vicar was not as noteworthy, Nafzger came back with a vengeance in 2007.

    By winning the '97 Derby with Street Sense, he not only cemented his legacy as a multiple Derby-winning trainer, he also broke the "Juvenile Curse" by winning with a horse who also won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the previous year. 

4. Charlie Whittingham

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    Regarded as one of the all-time great horsemen in the Sport of Kings, Charlie Whittingham was a force to be reckoned with in the Kentucky Derby, in the 80s.

    In 1986, Whittingham sent out Ferdinand with legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker in the irons. The big chestnut colt pulled off an impressive victory, despite the disadvantageous inside post.

    Whittingham's horse of a lifetime came in 1989 with Sunday Silence.

    The nearly black colt earned a hard-fought victory over Easy Goer in the Run for the Roses and began one of the most thrilling rivalries the sport has ever seen. The two sparked an intense West Coast/East Coast debate as they battled throughout the Triple Crown, and the remainder of the year.

3. Nick Zito

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Though it has been a decade since Nick Zito won his most recent Kentucky Derby with Go For Gin to add to the trophy he took home in 1991 with Strike the Gold, he remains one of the top trainers to watch during Triple Crown season.

    In addition to his two victories, he also saddled Ice Box to a runner-up finish in 2011. 

    The two Kentucky Derby wins would be enough to define most careers, but Zito might be best known as a Triple Crown spoiler.

    He sent out Birdstone to deny Smarty Jones the Triple Crown in 2004 and pulled off a similar upset with Da' Tara in 2008 over Big Brown. 

2. Bob Baffert

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    No list is complete without Bob Baffert. Over the past two decades, his name has become synonymous with the Triple Crown. 

    He has won the Kentucky Derby three times—1997 with Silver Charm, 1998 with Real Quiet and 2002 with War Emblem—and each time that horse went on to win the Preakness only to fall short of Triple Crown glory in the Belmont Stakes.

    In recent years, Baffert has had some heartbreaking losses and frustrating luck in the Kentucky Derby.

    Bodemeister, arguably one of his most talented sophomores in a decade, wound up second in 2012 after a scorching early pace.

    This year, he is scheduled to saddle two horses in the Derby, Hoppertunity and Chitu.

1. D. Wayne Lukas

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    If there was one lesson to be learned from the 2013 Triple Crown season, it was to never count out D. Wayne Lukas.

    With four Kentucky Derby wins over the course of his illustrious, Hall of Fame career, his sights are set on the six win record held by Ben Jones.

    His first Derby win came by defying the odds with a filly, Winning Colors, making history and taking on male rivals in 1988.

    He saddled Thunder Gulch to win the roses in 1995, and in 1996 was on the winning end of a photo-finish with Grindstone. His last Kentucky Derby victory came in 1999 and launched the Triple Crown bid of Charismatic.

    It has been fifteen years since that win, but if last year was any indication, "Coach Lukas" is just getting started.

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