The lull between final
The first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, had 15 entrants (including Ten Broeck, of “Molly and Tenbrooks” fame, who finished 5th behind Aristides), but the fields seemed to shrink for some years after that. The 1890s, in particular, were the era of tiny
1923 saw a 21-horse field, and 1928 and 1929 also went over 20 — however the intervening years had various field sizes, from approaching 20 to only 13. The next 20-horse field came in 1951, but was again followed by smaller fields. 1971 saw another 20-horse field, with smaller fields in between until 1974′s 23-horse experiment in insanity. Despite that bumper year, the 20-horse limit did not come into use until 10 years later (which might be unkindly interpreted as a comparatively speedy response for the sport’s governing figures).
The field stayed under 20 until 1981 again saw 21, with the early ’80s hovering around that 20-horse mark. 1985 was again a low year, however, with only 13 (and it was loaded – Spend a Buck winning, but Chief’s Crown, Skywalker and the ill-fated Tank’s Prospect were all in the mix). Field sizes varied considerably in the 1990s — in fact, we don’t get back to the 20-horse field until 2005 – and then 2006, and 2007.
Funny how something can become a tradition in just four short years.