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.
|Prep||11/24/2012||Ky. Jockey Club||8.5||Dirt||CD||Kentucky||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||2/7/2013||El Camino Real||9.0||Synth.||GG||California||10||4||2||1|
|1stChamp||2/23/2013||Fountain of Youth||8.5||Dirt||GP||Florida||50||20||10||5|
|1stChamp||3/9/2013||Tampa Bay Derby||8.5||Dirt||TAM||Florida||50||20||10||5|
|1stChamp||3/24/2013||Sunland Derby||9.0||Dirt||SUN||New Mexico||50||20||10||5|
|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|
|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.