Have you ever wondered what it takes for a horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby? With the annual foal crop in the United States averaging around 20,000 Thoroughbred foals per year, only twenty horses or 0.001% of each foal crop will have their chance to compete in the Run for the Roses.

The Road to the Derby—Qualifying 

So, how do they make it to the starting gate? They take “The Road!”

In 2012, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby announced a complete overhaul of the Kentucky Derby qualification system. Previously, horses had qualified for the race based off of earnings won in stakes races. The new system that debuted in the 2013 Derby featured a point system aligned with designated stakes races throughout the previous year. The “Road to the Kentucky Derby” was born.

The Road to the Derby—Point Gathering

The Road to the Kentucky Derby series features designated stakes races (September to April) that offer points to the top four finishers in each race. As The Road progresses closer to the Kentucky Derby, the point values offered for each race increase. Seven states across the United States (Arkansas, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, New York, and Oklahoma) host a total of thirty-five races occurring at thirteen different racetrack venues.

The Road to the Derby—Calculating

Starting in September (the previous year) before the Kentucky Derby, the top two-year-olds get the opportunity to begin earning points. For the first five months running up to the Kentucky Derby, the point values are maintained at a 10-4-2-1 scale:

  • 10 points go to the winner 
  • 4 points to the runner up
  • 2 points to the third place finisher
  • 1 point to the fourth place finisher
The Road to the Derby—Bonus Points

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race is the premier stakes race on the two-year-old racehorse calendar. Due to its prestige, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile doubles the points:

  • 20 points go to the winner 
  • 8 points to the runner up
  • 4 points to the third place finisher
  • 2 points to the fourth place finisher
The Road to the Derby—Points Numbers Rise 

Starting in mid-February with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds Racecourse, point values jump drastically to a higher scale. Six races offer this increased point value:

  • 50 points the winner
  • 20 points to the runner up
  • 10 points to the third place finisher
  • 5 points to the fourth place finisher

After collecting fifty points with a win, the winner in each race is essentially ensured a spot inside the Kentucky Derby’s starting gate. 

The Road to the Derby—Points Double

Towards the end of March, point values increase for the final time and double to an even higher scale:

  • 100 points go to the winner 
  • 40 points to the runner up
  • 20 points to the third place finisher
  • 10 points to the fourth place finisher

Continuing through mid-April, the remaining eight races serve as the final prep-races for horses preparing for the Kentucky Derby. These winners are often regarded as the “expected favorites” on The First Saturday in May. 

Historically, horses who earn at least 40 points tend to make the field for the Kentucky Derby, so simply finishing second in a 100 point race has the potential to securely place a horse into the starting gate.

While seven out of the eight one-hundred point races are offered in the United States, the UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai offers the same point scale. 

The Road to the Derby—Wild Card Wins

The Lexington Stakes at Keeneland serves as a pre-finale, “wild card” race offering points on a 20-8-4-2 scale. It provides hopeful horses who are on the bubble of making the Derby field the opportunity to earn some last-minute points. After this final race, horses are given three weeks to prepare for the Kentucky Derby.

The Road to the Derby—Global Invite

A globally inclusive event, the Kentucky Derby opens The Road to both Europe and Japan via a series of seven qualifying races in Europe and a series of four qualifying races in Japan. 

The highest point earner on each Road is extended an invitation to compete in the Kentucky Derby. If  the highest point earner declines, the next highest point earner is invited. This continues through the top four highest point earners. 

Master Fencer became the first horse on the Japan Road to the Derby to accept an invitation in 2019. He finished sixth. The European Road to the Derby has yet to produce a Kentucky Derby starter.

Check out the complete prep race schedule here.

Read up on the latest contenders for the 2021 Derby contenders in our latest story.

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