Eng: Navigating the Kentucky Derby Points Chase

The Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, held each April at Keeneland, is one of the four final major Kentucky Derby preps that offer 100 qualifying points to the winning horse. (Coady Photography)

We are into the homestretch of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prep season. The 20-horse field for the 145th Run for the Roses will be solidified in two weeks by four stakes races. They are the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct, the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park, all on April 6; and then a week later the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

The above four stakes races will each offer 100 Derby points to the winner, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth. In five of the last six Derbies, 30 points has been enough to get a horse into the field.

Right now there are 16 horses with 30 points or more in the Derby standings. So, in the four upcoming stakes, the top two finishers will earn enough points to make the Derby field for sure. The key to horses sitting on the bubble with 30 points or less is how many of those top finishers are already above them in points or below them.

It is a dream of every horse owner to win the Kentucky Derby. In years gone by, there was a saying among horsemen that “the horse takes you to the Derby and not the other way around.”

Now, it seems like if you have enough points, you are going to enter and run. A longshot victor like Mine That Bird (2009) at 50-1 odds gives every owner of a nice 3-year-old hope that they too can spring a big upset.

Game Winner (Eclipse Sportswire)

But since the Derby points system was started in 2013, the Derby has had more formful results. In fact, it has even led to two Triple Crown champions in American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) in this decade.

One reason for this is the emphasis now on current 3-year-old form. In past years, when graded stakes earnings were the barometer, precocious 2-year-olds could bank graded stakes earnings in one-turn sprints.

Many of those animals did not have the pedigree to win at the classic Derby distance of a mile and a quarter. And even if they had the distance pedigree, many did not develop physically and or mentally as 3-year-olds.

The early Derby favorites this year have been two colts from the Bob Baffert barn, Game Winner and Improbable. Baffert was also the trainer of both American Pharoah and Justify, so he kind of knows what he’s doing.

Game Winner, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, will race next in the Santa Anita Derby. Improbable will run a week later in the Arkansas Derby.

A colt named Maximum Security just vaulted into the Derby picture by easily winning the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby. The Jason Servis charge is undefeated now in four career starts. Ironically his first start was in a $16,000 maiden claiming race at Gulfstream Park.

That alone would set a new bar for Kentucky Derby lore. If Maximum Security wins, he will have been a horse that anyone could have claimed for $16,000. Some owners spend millions chasing the Kentucky Derby dream without ever getting close enough to sniff it.

Richard Eng is the author of “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies”, an introductory book for newcomers to the sport of horse racing.  For two decades, he was the turf editor and handicapper for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He still handicaps the Southern California tracks and his picks are for sale at www.racedaylasvegas.com. You can email him at rich_eng@hotmail.com and follow him on Twitter @richeng4propick and on Facebook.com.

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