It’s never too early to start thinking about the Kentucky Derby! The first Saturday in May is a few months away and there are many races scheduled between now and then to sort out the field for this year’s premier event for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds.
Here are the top five races to watch this February to catch a glimpse of the horses who will compete for the Triple Crown later this year.
$200 Risk Free Bet with promo code WINTER1
TVG Online Horse Race Betting
Out of the thousands of Thoroughbred foals born every year, only 20 can compete in the Kentucky Derby. Horses that are nominated to the Triple Crown must earn points by competing in selected races prior to the Kentucky Derby.
These races are known collectively as the Road to the Roses. The series of races offers points to the top four finishers in each race and the horses with the highest total points are invited to compete in the Derby.
The Road to the Roses comprises over 40 races. Most of the races are in the United States, but there are also opportunities in the United Kingdom, France, United Arab Emirates, and Japan.
The races for the next Kentucky Derby start as early as September of the previous year, However, the number of points awarded increases as the Kentucky Derby approaches, so the road becomes even more interesting to follow in the winter and spring.
As the points begin to increase this winter, here are the top five Kentucky Derby prep races to watch in February:
February 15, 2020
Until February, most of the races on the Road to the Roses are worth a total of 17 points, including 10 points to the winning horse. February marks the first significant point increases.
The Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds, held this year on February 15, is the first 50-point race of the season. The winning horse receives 50 points, while the next three finishers receive 20, 10 and five points, respectively. Many years, 50 points can be enough to get a horse in the gate on Derby Day, so the Risen Star is the first major race to watch on the Derby trail.
The Risen Star is also a prep race for the $1,000,000 Louisiana Derby, a premier event that offers 100 points to the winner and 50 points to the second-place finisher.
In the Risen Star, 3-year-olds compete on the main dirt track at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Louisiana, at a distance of 1 1/16 miles. Though the Fair Grounds is one of the oldest racetracks in the country, the Risen Star was first run in 1973 as the Louisiana Derby Trial Stakes.
In 1988, the race was won by a horse named Risen Star, who went on to win the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes that year and was named Champion 3-Year-Old Male Horse of 1988. The race was renamed in his honor in 1989.
One of the most famous recent winners of the race was Gun Runner, who was named American Champion Horse of the Year in 2017 and retired as one of the all-time leading money-earners of the sport with over $16 million.
February 29, 2020
The second 50-point race of the year happens in South Florida in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Like the Risen Star, the point distribution is 50-20-10-5 and the race serves as a prep race for one of the most important races in the entire Road to the Roses, the Grade 1 $1,000,000 Florida Derby.
The Fountain of Youth is an older race, first run in 1945. It is a 1 1/16 miles event on the main dirt track.
The race has produced many Kentucky Derby runners and even winners; most recently, Orb won the Kentucky Derby following a successful prep in the Fountain of Youth.
The Fountain of Youth has also produced a number of horses who have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but failed to sweep the third leg, including Thunder Gulch, Spectacular Bid, Kauai King and Tim Tam. Interestingly, twice in the last 15 years, the winner of the race has been declared via disqualification of the unofficial winning horse.
February 17, 2020
Many horses on the Kentucky Derby trail spend time in a seemingly unlikely state: Arkansas. Hot Springs, Arkansas, home to a National Park and birthplace of former President Bill Clinton, is also home to Oaklawn Park, a destination racetrack for many fans.
Like Saratoga in the summer, the small town of Hot Springs is all about racing when the local track opens up each January. Purse money has increased significantly in recent years, and the January-May race meet makes the track a perfect location for several key Kentucky Derby prep races.
While the Southwest Stakes is not the most important of the Oaklawn prep races, it is the first one, and horses may use this race as a warmup for the races they are truly pointing to, including the Grade 1 $1,000,000 Arkansas Derby, a 100-point race.
The Southwest is worth just 10 points to the winner, but the experience over the Oaklawn racing surface and $500,000 make it an attractive starting point for horses in their 3-year-old campaign.
The Southwest may not have the same kind of star power in recent years as some of the other stakes, but it was good enough for Smarty Jones, who won the Southwest in 2004 before sweeping the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and capturing the hearts of fans across the country.
February 1, 2020
The Withers Stakes is a 10-point race held at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York.
Kentucky Derby preps in New York have not produced as many Kentucky Derby winners recently as they have in the past, but the New York circuit is still a worthwhile path for many hopeful horses. The star power that exits the Derby trail via New York is strong; in addition to countless horses who have competed in or won one of the Triple Crown races, this circuit has produced four Triple Crown winners.
The Withers is an early race in New York, sometimes used by horses prepping for the more prestigious Wood Memorial. But notable horses have still exited the Withers. Last year, Tax won the Withers; this year, he competes in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup, a top event for older horses on the dirt.
The race is one of the oldest races in the Road to the Derby. It was first held in 1874 and has sent countless champions to the winner’s circle, including perhaps the greatest racehorse of all time, Man o’ War.
February 15, 2020
The El Camino Real Derby may not produce this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, but it cracks the top five prep races to watch for novelty purposes if nothing else. The race is held at Golden Gate Fields, just north of Berkeley, California.
It is the only Kentucky Derby prep race at Golden Gate and in Northern California or even the greater northwest region of the country. It was first held in 1982 at Bay Meadows, and when that track closed permanently in 2008, the race was moved south to Golden Gate.
Of all the Kentucky Derby prep races, one thing sets the El Camino Real Derby apart. This race, and one other at Turfway Park later in the year, are not contested on dirt. Golden Gate Fields is one of several tracks in North America with a synthetic main track surface. Rather than dirt, horses compete on Tapeta, a man-made blend of sand, fiber, rubber and wax.
Though some horses may show a preference for one or the other, for the most part, horses can run equally well on dirt and synthetic tracks. Time will tell if an El Camino Real Derby winner will continue to run for the roses on Churchill Downs’ main dirt track.
Follow the February Road to the Roses prep races to find the top contenders for this year’s Kentucky Derby. All Road to the Roses races are available to watch online, and you can bet as you watch through free accounts at TVG.com, Twinspires.com and through Xpressbet.com.
Xpressbet is the official partner of Gulfstream, Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita, each of which hosts February Derby preps. Use promo code 100BONUS to get a $100 sign up offer. Twinspires is the home of the Kentucky Derby; visit their site to learn about a free $100 sign up offer or even just a free $10 bet for creating an account. All sites offer free live streaming mobile video of all races, regardless of who or what you bet.