The Road to the Roses leads to the Kentucky Derby every year as 3-year-olds compete to run on the first Saturday in May. Racing fans follow the Road to the Roses closely to find their picks for the Kentucky Derby.
We’ve identified the six races you must watch to get ready for the Derby, and which one is most likely to produce another Kentucky Derby winner or even a Triple Crown champion.
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The road to the Kentucky Derby is competitive. Eligible 3-year-old Thoroughbred horses compete in a series of races to earn points; the 20 horses with the most points earned are invited to enter the $3 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
There are many races in which horses can earn points, but the available points vary by race, with most of the points in a race awarded to the winner. In general, the closer a prep race is to the Kentucky Derby, the points the race is worth. This means that the final races on the Road to the Roses are most likely to produce a horse that will be in the Kentucky Derby, and maybe even the winner.
There are six races in the United States in which a 3-year-old horse can run and earn up to 100 points, which is more than enough to qualify for the Derby. The cutoff for points often falls between 20 and 30 points, so winning a 100-point race or even finishing second and earning 50 points makes the following races key targets for Derby horses:
These races start in late March and take place over several weeks, so if you have not been able to follow the long Road to the Roses — it starts in September of the previous year — you can get caught up quickly and have a good chance of finding your Kentucky Derby winner.
These six major prep races have produced 56 of the 145 winners of the Kentucky Derby, so more than a third of all Kentucky Derby winners found their way into the gate at Churchill by winning one the above six races. Even better, these races have produced the Kentucky Derby winner for the last seven consecutive years.
Though these are the premier Derby preps, not all 100-point races are created equal. Here are the secrets and statistics for the prep races you’ll need to know to find this year’s winner:
One of the top six prep races has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than any other: the Florida Derby. Since it was first held in 1952, the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Florida has produced 15 horses that went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
More impressively, three of the last six Kentucky Derby winners won the Florida Derby: Always Dreaming in 2017, Nyquist in 2016, and Orb in 2013, suggesting that in the last six years, there is a 50% chance that the winner of the Kentucky Derby would be the horse that won the Florida Derby.
The Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans is the oldest of the big prep races first held in 1894. Yet, only two winners of the Louisiana Derby have won the Kentucky Derby: Black Gold in 1924 and Grindstone in 1996.
Even with just two Kentucky Derby winners, the race has produced a winner more recently than other prep races. The Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, despite producing ten Kentucky Derby winners, has not yielded a winner on the first Saturday in May since Strike the Gold in 1991 – a 28-year drought.
If the Florida Derby is an unlikely source for a Triple Crown, where have all the Triple Crown winners come from? Four of the thirteen Triple Crown winners each won the same prep race: the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, in New York.
Of the big six prep races, the Grade 2 Wood Memorial is one of the oldest, first run in 1925. Over its history, it has produced 11 Kentucky Derby winners, four of which also won the Triple Crown: Gallant Fox, Count Fleet, Assault and Seattle Slew.
There were four Triple Crown winners who prepped by winning the Wood Memorial, but technically the race also produced a fifth Triple Crown winner. The most famous Triple Crown winner in history raced in the Wood Memorial in 1973: Secretariat. However, the race was one of Big Red’s few losses, as he finished third behind Sham in second place and the winner, Angle Light.
The last winner of the Wood Memorial to win the Kentucky Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus, in 2000. While that is not the longest dry spell among prep races, it has not been a prominent source of Derby winners in recent years compared to other races.
The Florida Derby may be the most likely to produce a Derby winner; however, is the least likely prep race to produce a Triple Crown winner. In the history of the race, not one of the 15 horses that went on to win the Kentucky Derby continued to sweep the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
To make matters worse, of the 15 Florida Derby graduates who won the Kentucky Derby, six horses managed to win the first two legs but failed to capture the third and final race, the Belmont Stakes. The Florida Derby has produced more Triple Crown heartbreak than any other prep race.
The Arkansas Derby is a prep race wild card. Held at Oaklawn Park and worth $1,000,000, the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby has produced several Champion horses in its 85-year history.
Only three winners of the Arkansas Derby have won the Kentucky Derby: Sunny’s Halo, Smarty Jones and American Pharoah. Of course, American Pharoah also won the Triple Crown, so one in three Arkansas Derby winners who win the Kentucky Derby have also won the Triple Crown and have done so recently.
The Arkansas Derby has produced many classic winners other than the Kentucky Derby. Seven winners have gone on to win the Preakness Stakes, and four of the winners have won the Belmont Stakes. If this year’s Arkansas Derby winner does not win the Kentucky Derby, make a note if he returns to run in the Preakness or Belmont.
Hall of Fame Trainer Bob Baffert is known for having some of the best 3-year-olds in the business. He has won the Triple Crown twice, with American Pharoah in 2015 and again with Justify in 2018. He has won the Kentucky Derby five times. Chances are good that Baffert is going to bring a legitimate contender to Churchill Downs, so where does he prep his horses first?
Baffert sends a few horses to Oaklawn — where American Pharoah took his road to the Derby — but the prep race of choice is the Santa Anita Derby in Arcadia, California. Baffert holds the record for most wins in the Grade 1 event at Santa Anita with eight victories, more than any other trainer in the race.
The Santa Anita Derby, historically, is a very solid prep race. Since it was first held in 1935, 11 winners of the Santa Anita Derby have also won the Kentucky Derby. It has also given the world two Triple Crown winners –- Justify and Affirmed –- as well as its share of heartbreak, with California Chrome, I’ll Have Another and Sunday Silence each winning the first two legs but not the Belmont Stakes.
The Santa Anita Derby has one other unique fact: the race produced one of the few fillies to win the Kentucky Derby. Winning Colors, one of just three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby, first won the Santa Anita Derby before making her run for the roses in 1988.
Kentucky Derby prep season heats up in late March and April! Watch all the major prep races for free online or on your phone when you sign up for an online wagering account. Online horse racing wagering is legal in most states, and when you sign up at TVG, TwinSpires, or Xpressbet, you can get free money just for opening an account and placing bets. Xpressbet offers up to $500 for new accounts, and TVG has a money-back offer on all of the Kentucky Derby prep races – so find your Kentucky Derby horses and get paid to do it!