How Horses Qualify for the Kentucky Derby: A Beginner’s Guide

Events / Travel
Country House sports the garland of roses after the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
Country House sports the garland of roses after the 2019 Kentucky Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The road to this year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is heating up, but if you’re new to horse racing you may have some questions about how all of this works. Wonder no more, because we’re here to help! Scroll down to check out an easy overview about qualifying for the run for the roses.

Who: Three-Year-Old Thoroughbreds

When you hear that winning the Kentucky Derby is a once-in-a-lifetime event, that’s a literal statement. Only 3-year-old Thoroughbreds are eligible to run in the big race, so the competition is fierce and a second chance at glory isn’t coming next year. Look at it this way: This year’s Derby contenders were all born in 2019. There were 19,295 Thoroughbred foals (aka baby horses) born that year, and only 20 horses can run in the Kentucky Derby. That means that there’s about a one in a thousand chance that any given Thoroughbred born in 2019 will make it to the 2022 run for the roses, and a one in 19,295 chance of winning. If you're a horse owner, there's literally a better chance that you'll win an Oscar at some point than score a victory in the Kentucky Derby this year.

What: Prep Races

To get to the Kentucky Derby, you need to run successfully in prep races. These are competitions specifically designated by the Kentucky Derby to help make horses eligible for the run for the roses, and each prep race has become a huge draw as a result. 

When: From September to April

The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday in May every year, so prep races begin in the September of runners’ 2-year-old season and continue until the next April. Want the full schedule? Here you go

Where: Worldwide

Horse racing is a global sport, so why should Kentucky Derby qualifiers only happen in the U.S.? In addition to the United States, prep races are contested in the U.K., Ireland, Japan, U.A.E., and France.

In the U.S., prep races are in the following states: Kentucky (at Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course, Louisville’s Churchill Downs, and Turfway Park in Florence), Florida (Hallandale Beach’s Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar), California (Arcadia’s Santa Anita Park, Cypress’s Los Alamitos Race Course, and Berkeley’s Golden Gate Fields), New York (Belmont Park in Elmont and Aqueduct racetrack in Queens), Oklahoma (Remington Park in Oklahoma City), Louisiana (New Orleans’s Fair Grounds), Arkansas (Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs), and New Mexico (Sunland Park, which is in, well, Sunland Park).

Why: Glory, But Also Money

When a horse wins big races like these Kentucky Derby preps, two things happen: They go down in the history books – ask any racing nerd who won the biggest prep race at their favorite track 20 years ago and they’ll very likely have an answer for you – and also cash. Most Kentucky Derby qualifying races carry substantial purse money, and if the horse that wins is able to be bred, a victory in a major Derby prep race very much adds to his stud value.

Omaha Beach and Mike Smith after winning the 2019 Arkansas Derby.
Omaha Beach and Mike Smith after winning the 2019 Arkansas Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

How: Get the Points

Horses gain entry to the Kentucky Derby by earning points. The prep races mentioned above each have designated points that go to the winner, second-, third-, and fourth-place finishers. The earliest prep races in September have the fewest points (10 to the winner, four to second, two to the third-place finisher, and one to the horse who comes in fourth) while the races in late March and early April have the most (100 to the winner, 40 to the second-place finisher, 20 to third, and 10 to fourth.) Want to see the full list? Then click here

Make no mistake: These points matter. Since this system began in 2013, horses with 100 qualifying points or more have won the Kentucky Derby all but two times: Orb (2013, 150 points), California Chrome (2014, 150 points), American Pharoah (2015, 160 points), Nyquist (2016, 130 points), Always Dreaming (2017, 100 points), and Justify (2018, 100 points.) The outliers are 2019 winner, Country House, who earned 50 points, and last year’s winner, Mandaloun, who had 52 points.

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