The Road to the Kentucky Derby

Qualifiers, events and wild card races

How Horses Qualify for the ‘Run for the Roses’

There are twenty places in the starting gate annually at the Kentucky Derby. These places are filled by the most successful horses in the ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ series. There are 46 ‘qualifying’ races worldwide and every race awards points to the top 4 finishers.

The series is divided into three parts:

  • ‘Main Road to the Kentucky Derby’ – 35 races that mostly take place in the US.
  • ‘Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby’ – 4 races in Japan.
  • ‘European Road to the Kentucky Derby’ – 7 races that take place in England, Ireland and France.

This guide to the prestigious qualifying series talks you through exactly how qualification works and the points systems in place. You’ll find details about every race in each of the three qualifying routes below.

Betting on the Kentucky Derby Qualifiers

Placing a bet on the Kentucky Derby or any of the qualifying races is easy. Online horse racing betting is legal throughout the country. Online sites including TwinSpires, Bet America and TVG allow you to enter the pari-mutuel betting pools at the tracks.

You can also bet at the tracks hosting the qualifier races, other tracks (via Simulcast facilities) or at OTB offices in many states.

Main Road to the Kentucky Derby

The majority of the field will come through the ‘Main Road to the Kentucky Derby’. 18 of the 20 runners will be guaranteed to come from this list, but this number could rise to all 20 in certain circumstances (as detailed in the later sections of this page).

This main road is itself again divided into three parts: The Prep Season, the Championship Series Events and the Wild Card Events.

Prep Season Races

Winners are awarded 10 points, with 4, 2 and 1 points awarded to 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively.

  • Iroquois Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Churchill Downs in September, with a purse of $200,000.
  • American Pharoah Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Santa Anita in September, with a purse of $301,404.
  • Champagne Stakes:  Raced over 1 mile and run at Belmont in October, with a purse of $500,000.
  • Breeders’ Futurity Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Keeneland in October, with a purse of $500,000.
  • Breeders’ Cup Juvenile: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Santa Anita in November, with a purse of $2,000,000.
  • Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Churchill Downs in November, with a purse of $300,000.
  • Remsen Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Aqueduct in December, with a purse of $250,000.
  • Los Alamitos Futurity: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Los Alamitos in December, with a purse of $200,000.
  • Springboard Mile: Raced over 1 mile and run at Remington in December, with a purse of $400,000.
  • Jerome Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Aqueduct in January, with a purse of $150,000.
  • Sham Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Santa Anita in January, with a purse of $100,500.
  • Lecomte Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Fair Grounds in January, with a purse of $200,000.
  • Smarty Jones Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Oaklawn in January, with a purse of $150,000.
  • Holy Bull Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Gulfstream in February, with a purse of $350,000.
  • Withers Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Aqueduct in February, with a purse of $250,000.
  • Robert B. Lewis Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Santa Anita in February, with a purse of $100,500.
  • Sam F. Davis Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Tampa Bay in February, with a purse of $250,000.
  • El Camino Real Derby: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Golden Gate in February, with a purse of $100,000.
  • Southwest Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Oaklawn in February, with a purse of $750,000.

Championship Series Events

These are divided into two sections:

First Leg of Series

Winners are awarded 50 points, with 20, 10 and 5 points awarded to 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively.

  • Risen Star Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Fair Grounds in February, with a purse of $400,000.
  • Fountain of Youth Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Gulfstream in February, with a purse of $400,000.
  • Tampa Bay Derby: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Tampa Bay in March, with a purse of $350,000.
  • Gotham Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Aqueduct in March, with a purse of $300,000.
  • San Felipe Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Santa Anita in March, with a purse of $400,000.
  • Rebel Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/16th of a mile and run at Oaklawn in March, with a purse of $900,000.
  • Sunland Derby: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Sunland Park in March, with a purse of $700,000.

Second Leg of Series

Winners are awarded 100 points, with 40, 20 and 10 points awarded to 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively.

  • Louisiana Derby: Raced over 1 and 3/16th of a mile and run at Fair Grounds in March, with a purse of $1,000,000.
  • UAE Derby: Raced over 1,900 meters (approximately 1 and 3/16th of a mile) and run at Meydan in March, with a purse of $2,500,000.
  • Florida Derby: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Gulfstream in March, with a purse of $1,100,000.
  • Wood Memorial Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Aqueduct in April, with a purse of $1,000,000.
  • Blue Grass Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Keeneland in April, with a purse of $1,000,000.
  • Santa Anita Derby: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Santa Anita in April, with a purse of $1,000,000.
  • Arkansas Derby: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Oaklawn Park in April, with a purse of $1,000,000.

‘Wild Card’ Events

Winners are awarded 20 points, with 8, 4 and 2 points awarded to 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively.

  • Spiral Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Turfway in March, with a purse of $200,000.
  • Lexington Stakes: Raced over 1 and 1/8th of a mile and run at Keeneland in April, with a purse of $200,000.

At the end of the ‘Main Road to the Kentucky Derby’, the 18 horses with the most points will qualify for a place in the race.

Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby

The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby consists of 4 races, with the points tally increasing from race to race. The first race awards 10 points to the winner, with 4, 2 and 1 points awarded to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively. The second race sees these numbers doubled, while races three and four see 3x and 4x the points awarded for the opening race in the series.

  • Cattleya Sho: Raced over 1600 meters (approximately 1 mile) and run at Tokyo Racecourse in November.
  • Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun: Raced over 1600 meters (approximately 1 mile) and run at Kawasaki Racecourse in December.
  • Hyacinth: Raced over 1600 meters (approximately 1 mile) and run at Tokyo Racecourse in February.
  • Fukuyro: Raced over 1800 meters (approximately 1 and 1/8th of a mile) and run at Nakayama Racecourse in March.

At the end of this series, the horse with the most points is awarded a place in the line-up for the Kentucky Derby. If connections should decline, the 2nd, 3rd then 4th horses in the series will be allocated the place in turn. If all should decline, the spot will revert to the Main Road to the Kentucky Derby, with the next in line awarded a place.

European Road to the Kentucky Derby

This route contains a series of seven races. The first four races award 10 points to the winner, with 4, 2 and 1 points awarded to 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively. These points are doubled for races 5 and 6 in the series and trebled for the final race. The races ran between September and November are run on grass, while the later races are run on a synthetic surface.

  • Royal Lodge Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Newmarket (England) in September.
  • Beresford Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at the Curragh (Ireland) in September.
  • Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère: Raced over 1600 meters (approximately 1 mile) and run at Longchamp (France) in October.
  • Vertum Futurity Trophy: Raced over 1 mile and run at Newcastle (England) in November.
  • Patton Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Dundalk (Ireland) in February.
  • Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Kempton Park (England) in March.
  • Cardinal Stakes: Raced over 1 mile and run at Chelmsford City Racecourse (England) in April.

At the end of this series, the horse with the most points is awarded a place in the line-up for the Kentucky Derby. If connections should decline, the 2nd, 3rd then 4th horses in the series will be allocated the place in turn. If all should decline, the spot will revert to the Main Road to the Kentucky Derby, with the next in line awarded a place.

What happens if there is a tie in the Road to the Kentucky Derby Standings?

In the case of any ties, earnings in non-restricted stakes race act as a tie-breaker.

How did the Road to the Kentucky Derby Begin?

The first point-based system arrived in 2013. This original series consisted of 36 races (19 in the Prep season and 17 in the Kentucky Derby Championship Season). Orb was the first winner of the series with a total of 150 points (tied with Verrazano, but Orb had won $30,000 more). Orb was installed the favorite for the race and duly went on to win, while Verrazano finished 14th).

How did Horses Qualify Before the Road to the Kentucky Derby?

Prior to the Road to the Kentucky Derby, qualification was based on ‘graded stakes earnings’ in nearly 200 races across North America, with the largest 20 earners gaining a place in the starting gate. On introduction of the new points-based system, Churchill Downs CEO Bob Evans stated,

Our primary driving motive is to create new fans for horse racing. We’re implementing a more fan-friendly, cohesive and simplified system that should create compelling drama and appeal to a wider customer base. Fans, as well as the owners and trainers of the horses, will know exactly which races are included and what races matter the most based on a sliding scale of points.

Final thoughts on the most exciting 2 minutes in sport

The most exciting 2 minutes in sport attracts millions of viewers. What many don’t see is the complex points system which narrows the Kentucky Derby field to the best horses from around the world. There are a lot of domestic qualifiers, with the ‘Main Road’ and ‘Championship Series’ races at tracks around the country. With Europe and Asia also hosting qualifiers, the cream of international talent also has a shot at entering the race.

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