It’s never too early to start thinking about the next Kentucky Derby – even though the first Saturday in May is many months away, the Road to the Roses starts in September for the next year’s big dance.
Can you spot the next Kentucky Derby winner? Here are the top five races to watch this fall to catch a glimpse of the horses who will compete for the Triple Crown next spring.
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Out of the thousands of Thoroughbred foals born every year, only 20 can compete in the Kentucky Derby. How is the field determined? Horses that are nominated to the Triple Crown must earn points by competing in selected races prior to the Kentucky Derby. This series is known as the Road to the Roses and comprises of a series of races that are worth points to the top four finishers. Points are tracked throughout the fall, winter and spring and the top 20 horses by points are invited to compete in the Derby.
The Road to the Roses starts in September and includes over 40 races. Most races are held in the United States, but there are also opportunities in the United Kingdom, France, United Arab Emirates and Japan.
Even though they are months before the Kentucky Derby, there are several prep races that reliably produce Derby trail horses. Here are the top five to watch this fall to get a head start on your Kentucky Derby handicapping:
September 14, 2019
The Road to the Roses starts at the same track where it ends: Churchill Downs. The Iroquois Stakes kicks off the Road to the Roses every year on the opening weekend of the Churchill Downs fall meet.
The Iroquois Stakes is worth 10 points to the winner and carries a purse of $150,000. It is restricted to 2-year-olds and is held at 1 1/16 miles over the main dirt track under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.
It is a relatively new race and was first held in 1982. To date, no winner of the Iroquois has continued to win the Kentucky Derby; however, it also has only been an official prep race since 2013.
The race has produced several horses who have competed in the Triple Crown races. Though he finished fifth in the Iroquois last year, Everfast finished second in the Preakness Stakes in 2019. In 2016, Lookin At Lee finished second in the Iroquois and came back in 2017 to run second in the Kentucky Derby at odds of 33-1.
Watching the Iroquois is a fun way to kick off the Kentucky Derby prep season, and it’s only fitting to watch and wager on the race at Twinspires.com, the partner betting site of Churchill Downs.
September 27, 2019
If a race is named after a Triple Crown winner, it is safe to assume that the honored champion won that race on his way to sweeping the classic races.
Now known as the American Pharoah Stakes, the former FrontRunner Stakes was renamed in 2018 in honor of American Pharoah, who won the race on his way to winning the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown in 2015.
The race is held each fall at Santa Anita on the dirt course at a distance of 1 1/16 miles with a purse of $300,000.
The race has been held since 1970 but it did not begin to produce many legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders until the last 20 years. Many familiar names heading to the Kentucky Derby used this race as a prep, such as Roman Ruler, Bolt d’Oro, Game Winner and more.
In the last five years, each winner of the American Pharoah Stakes has returned to run in the Kentucky Derby, two of which have won the Derby: American Pharoah in 2015 and Nyquist in 2016.
October 5, 2019
The Champagne Stakes, held each fall at Belmont Park, tends to fly under the radar. It is not the first stop on the Derby trail, nor is it the richest, nor is it named after a well-known winner of the race. But historically, it may be the most productive stop on the trail for 2-year-olds.
The race is one of the oldest in the United States, dating back to 1867. Currently, the race is held at one mile on the dirt at Belmont Park, though the distance has varied from as short as six furlongs in 1871 to 1 1/8 miles in 1984. Belmont is its fourth home; it was held first at Jerome Park Racetrack, then moved to Morris Park through 1904, and was hosted occasionally at nearly Aqueduct Racetrack.
Many winners of the Champagne have lit up the tote board in the Kentucky Derby or other Triple Crown races.
The first Kentucky Derby winner produced by the Champagne was Ben Brush in 1897, followed by Riva Ridge in 1972, Foolish Pleasure in 1975 and Sea Hero in 1993. Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Count Fleet counted the Champagne among their early Kentucky Derby preps in 1976 and 1942, respectively.
Easy Goer was just shy of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes wins in 1989 but returned to win the Belmont Stakes, while Alydar ran second to Triple Crown winner Affirmed in all three legs of the Triple Crown in 1978.
October 5, 2019
Another lesser-known race has produced some serious Derby trail contenders over its 80-year history: the Breeders’ Futurity Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky.
Set in the heart of Thoroughbred horse country, the Breeders’ Futurity is a 1 1/16 mile race contested over a dirt course for a purse of $500,000. The winner of the race receives 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.
One recent familiar winner of the Breeders’ Futurity is Classic Empire, who was the post-time favorite for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. Classic Empire finished fourth in the Derby and returned two weeks later to finish second in the Preakness Stakes. Classic Empire is out of a mare named Sambuca Classica; her sire, Cat Thief, also won the Breeders’ Futurity in 1998.
The race has produced Kentucky Derby winners: Swale swept both the Breeders’ Futurity in 1983 and the Kentucky Derby the following spring, and Whirlaway accomplished the same feat in 1940-1941 on his way to winning the Triple Crown.
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November 1, 2019
Your best chance of the year to catch a future Derby winner is in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This is a premier race for 2-year-olds and will attract horses from across the country and around the world as racing celebrates the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in November at Santa Anita Park.
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is the richest race for 2-year-old Thoroughbreds in North America with a purse of $2,000,000. It is held each year in late October or early November as part of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
The race was first held in 1984, making it one of the original Breeders’ Cup races. Interestingly, the Iroquois, Champagne and Breeders’ Futurity – three stakes worth Kentucky Derby points – also carry an automatic bid to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and an opportunity for even more Derby points.
For years, fans witnessed an interesting trend – no winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the most prestigious race for 2-year-old Thoroughbreds, was able to return six months later and win the Kentucky Derby, the most prestigious race for 3-year-olds.
Timber Creek was the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to win one of the Triple Crown races the following year: the Preakness Stakes in 1994. But it took 22 years for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to win the Kentucky Derby, which Street Sense accomplished in 2006-2007.
Since then, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners have fared better: Nyquist won both races in 2015-2016, and his sire, Uncle Mo, won the Juvenile in 2010. Good Magic, who was second in the Champagne and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, was second in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness Stakes. Classic Empire, mentioned earlier, was the post-time favorite for the Derby in part due to his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win in 2016.
Other winners from the last decade all factor in the breeding of some notable Derby horses. For example, 2013 Juvenile winner New Year’s Day is the sire of disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security.
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and all Road to the Roses races are available to watch online with real-money wagering. Santa Anita, the home of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup, is a partner of Xpressbet.com, where you can sign up for a free account and earn a sign-up bonus of up to $500. All races are also available on Twinspires.com and TVG.com.
Follow the early Road to the Roses prep races and find your favorite contenders for next year’s Kentucky Derby trail. The horses who win these races may run in the Derby, but they will most certainly appear in the big prep races leading up to the Derby, where you can play them before they become Derby favorites and tell everyone that you knew them back when they were 2-year-olds.