Eight Essential Steps to Get Your Horse to the Kentucky Derby

From foaling to the auction ring to the racetrack on Kentucky Derby day, here are the eight steps to getting to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. (Penelope P. Miller/Eclipse Sportswire/Eclipse Sportswire)

Winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is the pinnacle of North American Thoroughbred racing, what every owner, breeder, trainer, and jockey strives for.

The Derby draws by far the biggest crowds of fans on-site at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. — on average, more than 150,000 each year — and the largest television audiences, too. The Kentucky Derby will have a purse of $3 million this year, the most money offered in its 145-year history, with $1.86 million going to the winning horse … but other races have larger purses. Money is not the principal allure of winning the Kentucky Derby — securing one’s permanent place in horse racing history is.

A lot of the Kentucky Derby’s historical significance derives from the fact that it is an incredibly difficult race to win. The Derby and its subsequent Triple Crown races, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, are restricted to 3-year-old Thoroughbreds. Every horse has only one chance to win them.

Furthermore, these days there are regularly 20 horses entered in the Kentucky Derby (one or two sometimes scratch shortly before the race). That’s a field bigger than any other Thoroughbred race in North America. And the race’s distance — 1 ¼ miles on dirt — is longer than any Derby starter will have ever run before, and for many of them, as long as they will ever run in a race.

To win the Kentucky Derby, you must have a fast, talented horse that also has stamina. The horse must be nominated to the Kentucky Derby and earn enough qualifying points to secure a spot in the starting gate. And, oh yeah, you’ve got to have a lot of luck.

Let’s review eight essential steps that have to be taken before your horse can reach the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs and be feted with the traditional garland of roses:

1. Breeding

Derby dreams begin in the breeding shed, when matches are made between stallions and broodmares backed by voluminous pedigree research. As mentioned above, breeders aiming to get a Kentucky Derby horse will value stamina as well as speed in the bloodlines. Certain veteran sires have established a reputation for getting offspring who can handle a mile and a quarter or longer — Tapit and Curlin, for example — but often breeders will take a flyer on a young, unproven stallion who either was successful running long as a racehorse or who has a good stamina pedigree himself.

The broodmare, or dam, is just as important to the process, if not more so. While stallions may be booked for over a hundred matings a year, a very productive broodmare will only give birth 10 or so times during her life. Broodmares with a track record of foaling stakes-winning horses, especially stakes winners in route (two-turn) races, are very highly valued. Of course, there also is meticulous research done of physical conformation of both stallion and broodmare to produce an ideal match that brings out the best traits of both and, perhaps, compensates for possible physical weaknesses. Breeding a racehorse is in many ways both a science and an artform.

2. Foaling

If the mating session and gestation period of roughly 11 ½ months goes well, you’ll be on hand sometime during the late winter and early spring months to witness one of the most exciting and cherished events in animal husbandry — the birth of a Thoroughbred foal. Assuming that goes well, the months ahead will bring a weaning process (when the foal is separated from its dam), growth and development, and plenty of time for turnout and fun in the pasture. Keep up with ABR’s Penelope Miller and her compendium of new Thoroughbred foals each week to get a full sense of how special a time this is.

3. Thoroughbred Sales

Here’s where you may enter the picture if you’re strictly an owner, rather than an owner-breeder. Some Thoroughbreds are first sent to a public auction as weanlings, generally during late fall, several months after they are born, but in North America most of the ones that are put up for auction appear in yearling (1 year old) sales, during the summer and fall of their second birth year. The largest yearling sales are held by Keeneland in Kentucky and Fasig-Tipton in Kentucky and New York, and the Keeneland September sale in particular reaches all areas of the market, usually cataloging more than 4,000 horses over a couple of weeks. Seven-figure horses may get all of the headlines at these sales, but if you’re looking to buy a Thoroughbred and chase those Derby dreams, the best axiom to keep in mind is this: “A good racehorse can come from anywhere.” To give one of so many examples, the owners who campaigned 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew spent only $17,500 for him at the Fasig-Tipton summer yearling auction in Kentucky (roughly $73,500 today).

4. Training

If you’ve decided to keep your homebred or if you’ve just bought a precocious yearling, now’s the time to start finding out whether he or she is ready to become a racehorse and, oh yes, whether he or she has talent. During the coming months, through the winter and into the spring, your horse will go through the stages of early training — getting comfortable with a bridle, saddle, rider, and eventually gate schooling — and then, if all goes well, gallops and workouts begin. Some owners don’t buy Thoroughbreds until early in their 2-year-old year, and there is an entire sector of the horse business geared toward them based in central Florida. Spring auctions for 2-year-old Thoroughbreds emphasize precocious talent and speed, showcasing horses working out before the sales to draw interest. Horses coming out of those sales and ones who’ve been training privately will populate the juvenile races at tracks all across the U.S. from late spring through the rest of the year — and buzz for the following year’s Kentucky Derby often begins before the current year’s Derby even runs.

5. The Juvenile Season

Mind Control winning 2018 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Most horses aiming for the Kentucky Derby begin racing during their 2-year-old season — although, as Justify proved last year, not doing so isn’t a “curse” after all. Depending on your finances, location, and ambitions, you’ll hire a trainer and plot out a schedule for your young racehorse (a budding superstar in every owner’s eye) that usually starts with a one-turn sprint and then, depending on how he or she performs, builds out to longer-distance races against better competition. The summer meets at Saratoga and Del Mar are where many the most highly regarded 2-year-old racehorses congregate, but … well, remember the maxim mentioned above.

The best trainers make smart decisions over the course of a young racehorse’s first months on the track — they know which races to point to, how to help horses mature and build confidence, when to give the horse time off, and what to try if athletic progress stalls. By the fall, if you’ve got the right horse, it’s time to consider the major graded stakes races for 2-year-olds, including the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Some of these races offer qualifying points for the next year’s Kentucky Derby (more on that in a moment), and the results of those races usually shape the Derby discussion over the winter months before things really get serious in early springtime.

6. Nominations and Derby Preps

The Iroquois Stakes, above, was the first points race for this year's Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Early nominations for the Triple Crown are due in January, and cost $600, with forms sent to the racing secretary at Churchill Downs. The late nomination period continues through April 1, but it requires a $6,000 fee. If for some reason you didn’t nominate your horse by then, and he or she emerges as a late-blooming stakes winner, you can still nominate for the Triple Crown before the entry deadline for either the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, or Belmont – but the supplemental nomination fee for those races is $200,000, $150,000, and $50,000 respectively. In other words, nominate early!

Prior to 2013, horses qualified for the Kentucky Derby based on the graded stakes earnings they accumulated. That meant that nearly every year, a handful of horses secured spots in the Derby starting gate by bankrolling earnings from graded stakes that were sprints. Even if they had never shown they could run around two turns — let alone handle 1 ¼ miles — these horses often were entered simply because of the incredible allure of simply having a starter in the most prestigious race in the U.S. But since 2013, Churchill Downs has instituted a qualifying points system, one they’ve adjusted a few times in the years since. Now, there is a series of races, all of them at a mile or longer, that each offer Derby points to the top four finishers. The point totals offered in prep races increase as the calendar turns – and by April, when the last several Kentucky Derby preps are run, each race distributes 170 points to the top four finishers, with 100 going to the winner. (The Stonestreet Lexington Stakes held in mid-April at Keeneland is the one exception, offering fewer points and giving owners a last-chance effort to qualify for the Derby).

7. Navigating Derby Week

Journalists and photographers swarm Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If you’ve gotten this far, be prepared for a level of excitement that is unmatched anywhere else in the world of horse racing. The Churchill Downs backstretch is percolating with activity all week long, as horses shipping in take to the track for the first time and ones already based there get their final tune-ups. The press throng is substantial, and fan interest is at its peak from the racetrack’s opening night the Saturday before the Derby until the Derby itself is run. But Churchill Downs has more than a century of experience handling all of the challenges of Kentucky Derby week, and its staff manages the barn requests and workout schedules with the skill of New York City air-traffic controllers.

Each Thoroughbred has its own individual personality, and there’s no telling how your horse will react to the hubbub, but if things get too overwhelming it’s best to take a moment and recall recent history and the story of Mine That Bird, who made the journey from New Mexico to Churchill Downs in a van driven by his trainer and was ignored by nearly everyone before shocking the world with a 50-1 Derby win in 2009. (Recalling that year also serves as a reminder that hiring a jockey with Kentucky Derby and/or Churchill Downs experience to ride your horse is always a good idea – take a bow, Mr. Borel.) 

8. The Run for the Roses

If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! From somewhere in the neighborhood of 21,000 registered Thoroughbred foals born in a given year in North America, you’ve campaigned one all the way through the highs and lows to grab one of 20 coveted spots in the starting gate of the most prestigious race in the sport. But once that gate opens, there are many more obstacles that have to be met and conquered. If you’ve got a speed horse, did you draw one of the inside or outside post positions and with other speed horses drawn near to you (not good)? Has your horse shown the ability to overcome adversity such as bumping and/or being blocked? There’s a very good chance that it will occur at some point during the race. And does your horse have the level-headedness to handle the roar of some 150,000 frenzied fans while running through the homestretch (something you won’t know until it happens)? The Kentucky Derby is a nerve-wracking ordeal, to be sure … but the goal makes it all worthwhile.

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