Kentucky Derby 2013: The New Qualifying Rules

Al Bello

The 2013 Kentucky Derby may be five months away but for the horses, trainers, jockeys and owners hoping to make it to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, the journey has already begun. However, this year's Run for the Roses will involve an entirely new qualifying process.

Prior to 2013, qualifying for the Kentucky Derby was based on a horse's earnings in any and all Graded stakes races run prior to the first Saturday in May. Those graded earnings could be acquired in April or the previous October - it didn't matter. As long as a horse finished in the top three or four in a graded stakes race, they were one step closer to the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

Stakes races come in two forms: graded and ungraded. Graded stakes are designated as Grade 1, Grade 2 or Grade 3, with Grade 1s indicating the highest level of racing possible. (In Europe and other parts of the world, stakes races are designated Group 1, Group 2 or Group 3). For the most part, Grade 1 races will have higher purses than a Grade 2 or a Grade 3, but not always. In fact, there are several Grade 3 races that sport $1 million in total purse money -- a prize that is seemingly excessively high given the quality of the fields.

Under the old system, any money earned by a horse in a Grade 1, Grade 2 or Grade 3 race impacted total graded earnings with respect to the Derby. This situation led to some races acting as de facto tickets to Churchill Downs if the event offered a large purse. For example, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is a Grade 1 race with a purse of $2,000,000, with $1.2 million awarded to the winner. Any horse that wins the Juvenile wouldn't have to run a single race between November and the Derby and would still have enough graded earnings to make the starting gate. The Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot (a race for juvenile run in late November), is worth $1,000,000, with $600,000 to the winner. Prior to 2013, a horse winning the Delta Jackpot would also have a secure spot in the Derby starting gate.

In year's past, the graded earnings cut-off to make the Derby was around $250,000, give or take ten or twenty grand. That's essentially the equivalent of winning a single race with a purse of $500,000, a situation that allowed some horses to qualify for the Derby off a very few strong races.

Starting with the 2013 Derby, Churchill Downs will determine the twenty horses* in the starting gate by using a point system in 36 races. Gone are the days were any and all graded stakes races provided an opportunity for a horse to make his way towards the Derby; now a horse must accumulate points (finish in the top four) in pre-selected and official "Kentucky Derby Prep Races".

*The starting gate at the Kentucky Derby is limited to twenty horses (with a possibility of four "alternate entries" or "AEs").

Below is a summary of the new road to the Derby schedule, along with the points allocated to each race along the way.

Segment Date Race Dist (f) Surf Track Location 1st 2nd 3rd 4th
Prep 9/29/2012 Royal Lodge 8.0 Turf NEW England 10 4 2 1
Prep 9/29/2012 Front Runner 8.5 Dirt SA California 10 4 2 1
Prep 10/6/2012 Breeders' Futurity 8.5 Synth. KEE Kentucky 10 4 2 1
Prep 10/6/2012 Champagne 8.0 Dirt BEL New York 10 4 2 1
Prep 10/7/2012 Grey 8.5 Synth. WO Ontario 10 4 2 1
Prep 11/3/2012 BC Juvenile 8.5 Dirt SA California 10 4 2 1
Prep 11/17/2012 Delta Jackpot 8.5 Dirt DED Louisiana 10 4 2 1
Prep 11/24/2012 Remsen 9.0 Dirt AQU New York 10 4 2 1
Prep 11/24/2012 Ky. Jockey Club 8.5 Dirt CD Kentucky 10 4 2 1
Prep 12/15/2012 CashCall Futurity 8.5 Synth. HOL California 10 4 2 1
Prep 1/5/2013 Sham 8.0 Dirt SA California 10 4 2 1
Prep 1/19/2013 Lecomte 8.0+70 Dirt FG Louisiana 10 4 2 1
Prep 1/21/2013 Smarty Jones 8.0 Dirt OP Arkansas 10 4 2 1
Prep 1/26/2013 Holy Bull 8.0 Dirt GP Florida 10 4 2 1
Prep 2/2/2013 Robert B. Lewis 8.5 Dirt SA California 10 4 2 1
Prep 2/2/2013 Sam F. Davis 8.5 Dirt TAM Florida 10 4 2 1
Prep 2/2/2013 Withers 8.5 Dirt AQU New York 10 4 2 1
Prep 2/7/2013 El Camino Real 9.0 Synth. GG California 10 4 2 1
Prep 2/18/2013 Southwest 8.0 Dirt OP Arkansas 10 4 2 1
1stChamp 2/23/2013 Risen Star 8.5 Dirt FG Louisiana 50 20 10 5
1stChamp 2/23/2013 Fountain of Youth 8.5 Dirt GP Florida 50 20 10 5
1stChamp 3/2/2013 Gotham 8.5 Dirt AQU New York 50 20 10 5
1stChamp 3/9/2013 Tampa Bay Derby 8.5 Dirt TAM Florida 50 20 10 5
1stChamp 3/9/2013 San Felipe 8.5 Dirt SA California 50 20 10 5
1stChamp 3/16/2013 Rebel 8.5 Dirt OP Arkansas 50 20 10 5
1stChamp 3/23/2013 Spiral 9.0 Synth. TP Kentucky 50 20 10 5
1stChamp 3/24/2013 Sunland Derby 9.0 Dirt SUN New Mexico 50 20 10 5
2ndChamp 3/30/2013 Florida Derby 9.0 Dirt GP Florida 100 40 20 10
2ndChamp 3/30/2013 UAE Derby 9.5 Synth. MEY UAE 100 40 20 10
2ndChamp 3/30/2013 Louisiana Derby 9.0 Dirt FG Louisiana 100 40 20 10
2ndChamp 4/6/2013 Wood Memorial 9.0 Dirt AQU New York 100 40 20 10
2ndChamp 4/6/2013 Santa Anita Derby 9.0 Dirt SA California 100 40 20 10
2ndChamp 4/13/2013 Arkansas Derby 9.0 Dirt OP Arkansas 100 40 20 10
2ndChamp 4/13/2013 Blue Grass 9.0 Dirt KEE Kentucky 100 40 20 10
Wild Card 4/20/2013 Lexington 8.5 Dirt KEE Kentucky 20 8 4 2
Wild Card 4/27/2013 Derby Trial 8.0 Dirt CD Kentucky 20 8 4 2


There are several things to take note of with the new Derby prep process and schedule:

  • The traditional final preps (Wood Memorial, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass Stakes) are still, for all intents and purposes, "win and you're in" events. The 100 points for winning any of those races (or the UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup day) should be enough to guarantee a spot in the starting gate in Louisville.
  • Winning a big Grade 1 race as a juvenile no longer guarantees a Derby spot. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile (at one time providing a ticket to Louisville) is now worth just 10 points, only 1/10th of the amount of final Derby preps.
  • Some races have been left out in the cold in the new system, particularly the Illinois Derby.
  • The almost-an-afterthought Derby Trial, run the week before the Derby at Churchill Downs, might once gain become an alluring race with its 20-point first place award. However, the timing of the race makes it almost impossible to pull off the Trial/Derby double.
  • According to Churchill Downs, under the old system there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 185 graded and group stakes worldwide that provided earnings towards a start in the Kentucky Derby. Under the new system, the number is reduced to a more manageable and clear 36 preps.

While the new qualifying system isn't perfect (I still can't believe the Illinois Derby isn't included, yet the Royal Lodge in England is considered a prep), the race selection and schedule should require more consistency from Kentucky Derby contenders. Additionally, running well in any of the traditional final prep races remains critical for a horse's chances to make the Derby starting gate.

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