Every year, thousands of Thoroughbred foals are born. Yet, only 20 horses make their way to the Kentucky Derby each year. How do hopeful 3-year-olds earn the right to enter the starting gate on the first Saturday in May?
There’s a system in place to determine the Derby field each year and following the Road to the Roses can be more fun than watching the Kentucky Derby itself.
Find the answers to all your questions about what it takes to get into the Kentucky Derby and how to follow the Road to the Roses to Churchill Downs in May.
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There are 20 spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, and with a $3 million purse and a lot of prestige on the line, those spots are coveted.
Remember that only 3-year-old horses may compete in the Derby (and any other race that is referred to as a “derby,” by definition), so each horse has only one chance in its lifetime to qualify for the big dance.
Horses qualify to get into Kentucky Derby by earning points in designated races. There is a schedule of races each year with assigned point values for the first, second, third and fourth place finishers.
Qualifying races early in the season are worth fewer points; races closer to the Derby are worth more.
The earliest races are worth 10 points to the winner, four points for second place, two points for third place, and one point for finishing fourth. Other races are worth 20-10-4-2, then 50-20-10-5, and finally, the final races held before the Derby are worth 100-50-20-10. That means that the first and second finishers in those races can often earn enough points in that one race to guarantee themselves a spot in the Derby gate. Though risky, a horse could technically avoid competing in a single prep race, win one of the final races and vault to the top of the leaderboard.
Though Derby season heats up in the spring, the actual Road to the Kentucky Derby starts in the fall.
The first scheduled prep race is the Iroquois Stakes. Like the Kentucky Derby, this race is held at Churchill Downs. It runs each fall in mid-September, so the first race for the following year’s Derby starts just four months after the current year’s Kentucky Derby. Racing fans can follow possible Derby horses for eight months of the year!
Derby preps take place at tracks across the country. Most of the preps happen between January and April, so the key tracks to follow for possible Derby horses are Santa Anita Park, Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park, the Fair Grounds, Keeneland and Aqueduct.
In addition, there are a few other prep races at tracks such as Tampa Bay Downs, Turfway Park, Sunland Park, Churchill Downs, Los Alamitos Race Course, Remington Park and Golden Gate Fields.
Santa Anita holds the record for the most prep races at one track. Each year, there are five opportunities for Derby potentials to earn points. On years when Santa Anita hosts the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, as it will in 2019, that number grows to six with the addition of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
If you’re a serious racing fan, you can travel to a track near you and plan to see a Kentucky Derby prep race in person. But it is even easier to watch online – sign up for a free account for online horse wagering at TwinSpires, Xpressbet or TVG and you can watch live streaming video of every prep race from your laptop or phone.
The Kentucky Derby leaderboard changes with each prep race. As horses earn more points and new horses enter the scene, the top 20 list will shift often during the early prep races.
As the Kentucky Derby approaches, the leaderboard becomes more interesting. Races are worth more points, and several horses may have even won one or more previous prep races, building up a bigger point total than the others on the list.
Several races are worth 100 points to the winner, and there are other races that are worth 50, so it is common to see horses at the top of the leaderboard with over 100 points earned. However, the points can drop off quickly. Also, horses with points may drop off the trail due to illness or a change in training plans.
There is no set number of points to get in the Kentucky Derby. The top 20 active horses on the Leaderboard at the time of entry are eligible to enter for the big race. The number of points each horse has can vary widely for many reasons.
In 2013, the first year of the point system, the 20th horse on the leaderboard entered the Derby having earned just 10 points. The horse, named Giant Finish, did not live up to his name and finished in 10th place in the Derby.
The following year, Commanding Curve entered the race as the 20th horse on the list, but this time points were higher and he had 20 points to his name. Despite being last of 20 horses by points, he finished in second place in the Derby, behind California Chrome — and paid nearly $32 to place for a $2 wager!
Of all the horses who just made the points cutoff, the story of Keen Ice is most impressive. Keen Ice earned 22 points and entered the Derby in 2015 as the 20th horse on the leaderboard. He finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, which was won by that year’s Triple Crown Champion, American Pharoah. Keen Ice continued to improve, running third in the Belmont, second in the Haskell Stakes (G1) and finally winning his first Grade 1 race, the Travers Stakes. In the Travers, he made history by becoming the only horse to defeat American Pharoah after he won the Triple Crown.
Since the point system was enacted, only two horses that led the leaderboard went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Orb earned 150 points and won the 2013 Derby, and California Chrome also earned 150 points and won the 2014 Derby. No points leader has won since then.
In 2015, International Star led by points but was scratched before the race. The horse with the second highest point total, Dortmund, ran third. The winner, American Pharoah, had earned 160 points and was in fourth place by points.
Gun Runner led with 161 points in 2016; he finished third in the Derby but would go on to have an illustrious career; he was named the second-leading Horse of Year in 2017 and is the all-time second leading horse by earnings. Nyquist, the Derby winner, was second in points with 130.
Girvin led with 150 points in 2017 but finished 13th, and in 2018, Magnum Moon led with 150 points before finishing second to last and defeating only one horse in the Derby, Thunder Snow, who bucked out the gate and did not even complete the race.
The moral of the story of the Derby Leaderboard is threefold. First, never discount a horse that is low on the leaderboard by points. Stars mature and emerge at different ages and a horse that is an also-ran in the Kentucky Derby could be the next Champion Horse of the Year. Like Commanding Curve, they could even show up big on Derby Day itself.
Second, just because a horse earns a lot of points does not mean that it is a sure thing to win the Kentucky Derby. Anything can happen on the first Saturday in May, and all the points in the world can’t prevent bad luck, an off day, or a horse who is maturing and figuring it all out at just the right time. More often than not, the leader by points does not win the Derby. So, on Derby Day, let your friends take the horse with the most points while you find better value.
Finally, the drama and unpredictability of the Road to the Roses can be more fun to watch than the Kentucky Derby itself. Horses move up and down by points, and there is always some tension near the end of the Derby Trail as horses compete for the final positions.
Find your favorite prep races at a track near you or sign up to watch each one live online at TwinSpires, TVG or Xpressbet – each site will give you completely legal and safe ways to watch the prep races and maybe make a little money while you do.