The traditional qualifying factor for horses participating in the Kentucky Derby was total graded stakes purse earnings. Churchill Downs refined the classic earnings method in favor of a points based system on the traditional prep races.
When and Why points?
Beginning in 2013, the Kentucky Derby prep races were officially bundled under the banner of The Road to the Kentucky Derby. Known fondly as the “Derby Trail,” the introduction of the prep series has led to a much easier guideline for both horsemen and horse racing fans. The Derby Trail also allows for more focused promotion of hopefuls targeting the Triple Crown.
There are four groupings that makeup the Kentucky Derby prep race series.
The first is the Kentucky Derby Prep Season with 20 races.
Beginning with the Iroquois Stakes in mid-September and running through the Southwest Stakes in late-February, each race offers a 10-4-2-1 points split. Except for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, which boasts a 20-8-4-2 split.
The next series is the Kentucky Derby Championship Series which offers 16 races total. Seven of these races deliver a 50-20-10-5 point split. The final prep races double the reward with an offering of 100-40-20-10. The exceptions are the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park and Lexington Stakes at Keeneland with a split of 20-8-4-2.
The races of highest value include the UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park; Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds; Wood Memorial at Aqueduct; Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park; Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park; and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
This race series design places a significant value on the most important prep races of the Kentucky Derby overall, as the Fastest Two Minutes In Sports inches closer. The cornerstone prep races attract significant handle as bettors sort out Kentucky Derby contenders and the points system enables the casual fan to understand how horses come to be eligible to participate as opposed to the former graded earnings system.
Kentucky Derby winners tend to excel in the “Championship Series” where races are worth the most points. Over the last decade, 9 of 10 Kentucky Derby champions have finished either in first or second place during at least one Championship Series race. The lone exception being 50-1 longshot odds Mine That Bird, who was able to qualify for the Kentucky Derby based largely upon graded earnings accrued earlier in his career.
Beginning in 2017, the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby was introduced. This two-race series has expanded to three races for 2018 and consists of the Cattleya Sho, newly added Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun (10-4-2-1 points awarded) and the Hyacinth (30-12-6-3). The horse with the most points is granted automatic entry into the Kentucky Derby.
The newest addition was the introduction of the Europe Road to the Kentucky Derby in 2017 that featured seven races in Ireland, Great Britain and France. Races include points splits of 10-4-2-1, 20-8-4-2 and 30-12-6-3 in the Burrandon at Newcastle.