The Kentucky Derby: How the Starting Gate is filled

In June of 2012 Churchill Downs Inc., made a huge alteration for how thoroughbreds qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Since 1986, the final field for the Derby has been determined by Graded Stakes Earnings. Essentially, the top 20 horses who had accumulated the most money running against top quality were allotted a spot in the starting gate the first Saturday of May. This system became troubling for racing fans who were not involved in the thoroughbred industry to follow on a regular basis.

With Nearly 15 million watching, the first problem that faced a novice Derby fan is knowing exactly what a Graded Stake race is. A Graded Stake is a race which has received a rating of I, II, or III determined by the American Graded Stakes committee based on runners in past fields. Grade I is the highest level with Grades II and III following. There were 185 graded stakes races worldwide that counted toward Derby selection. With this many races to be run all over the world, how was a non-industry fan able to follow the process of Derby selection?

Churchill Downs Inc. felt that the biggest challenge facing our industry today was promoting year round interest. Their Chairman and CEO, Bob Evans, felt the best way to develop interest was to map out a new system for Derby Qualification creating a system that was based on points rather than earnings. The new process became officially branded, “Road to the Kentucky Derby”.

The “Road to the Kentucky Derby” is now inclusive of 36 high quality stake races. These races begin in the fall of their two-year-old or Juvenile year of the racehorse, with the main staple being the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. After the first of the year, there are 17 marquee events for newly turned three-year-olds which occur over a 10 week span, separated into three legs,  prior to the first Saturday of May.

The first leg of stakes includes eight races beginning in February which run through the end of March. They include the Risen Star Stakes(Fair Grounds, Louisiana), Fountain of Youth Stakes (Gulfstream Park, Florida), Tampa Bay Derby (Tampa Bay Downs, Florida), Rebel Stakes (Oaklawn Park, Arkansas),Spiral Stakes (Turfway Park, Kentucky), and Sunland Derby (Sunland Park, New Mexico). The horses who finish first through fourth in these eight races receives point towards Derby qualification with the scale being,  50 (winner),  20 (second), 10 (third) and 5 (fourth).

The second leg features seven races beginning the final Saturday of March and lasting through the second weekend in April. These seven races include the Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park, Florida), UAE Derby (Meydan Racecourse Dubai), Louisiana Derby (Fairgrounds Race Course, Louisiana), Wood Memorial Stakes (Aqueduct Racetrack, New York), Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita Park, California), Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park, Arkansas), and the Bluegrass Stakes (Keeneland Race Course, Kentucky).

In this second leg of stakes races, the horses who finish first through fourth receive points based on a 100 (winner), 40 (second),  20 (third) and 10 (fourth) scale.

Finally, the last leg of stake races includes two “wild card” events. These two stakes are the Lexington Stakes(Keeneland Race Course, Kentucky) and the Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial Stakes (Churchill Downs, Kentucky). These 2  wild card races are not heavily weighted with a point system of 20 (winner),  8 (second),  4 (third) and 2 (fourth). The only use of this final stakes series is to increase the point standings of those horses who have gone through the “Road to the Kentucky Derby”.

It is our hope, that by explaining the qualification system as well as what the races are, fans will find it much easier to follow and continue to follow racing all year. Racing is a bug that bites you, once it does it is in your blood and you are hooked. It is easier for someone to become a fan of  any sport if they understand what they are watching. This simplified system should allow fans to make note of the races and start watching during a crops 2-year old year all the way through the Triple Crown Series.

New racing fans can use this new system akin to most any professional sport. The summer of the horse’s two-year-old year is preseason, November of their two-year-old year through early March of the three-year-old year is regular season, with March through April being the playoffs. All of these races culminate on that first Saturday in May when 20 horses break from the iron monster and we are able to witness….. the most exciting two minutes in sports!!


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