The Road to the Kentucky Derby: Kentucky Derby Prep Races

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The Road to the Kentucky Derby is in full swing, as Kentucky Derby qualifications are in progress. Churchill Downs is once again using a Kentucky Derby points system to determine the list of participants. This year marks the ninth consecutive year where the top thoroughbreds, trainers, and jockeys fight their way through Kentucky Derby prep races.

In this article, we will answer the question–how does a horse qualify for the Kentucky Derby? We will also give you the full schedule of Kentucky Derby qualifications so you know exactly when and where to watch the Kentucky Derby preps.

the road to the kentucky derby
Photo credit: PMillera4 on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Key Races of the Road to the Kentucky Derby

On the Road to the Kentucky Derby, there are three separate roads in which runners can qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

The main road is held in North America (with one race in Dubai) and it consists of 35 races total. 19 races are held in the Prep Season and 16 in the Championship Series. 

The other two roads include the series held in Japan and Europe. So, the invitations will also be handed to the points leaders in the seven-race European Road and four-race Japan Road. The races in the European Road take place in England, France, and Ireland.

The Derby field has a limit of 20 runners, with an additional four “also eligibles” in case of late withdrawals. In the fight for a position at the Churchill Downs starting gate, there are 7 races in total which bring a massive 100 points. These are the Louisiana Derby, UAE Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, and Arkansas Derby. Each of the races is extremely important, as they can make or break a runner’s chances of securing a spot.

In fact, many of the winners in these key races have often gone on to win the Kentucky Derby. The Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby, in particular, have been especially good indicators in the past decade. 

Namely, Florida Derby winners ended up winning the Kentucky Derby in 2013 (Orb), 2016 (Nyquist) and 2017 (Always Dreaming). When it comes to the Santa Anita Derby, it was in 2012 (I’ll Have Another), 2014 (California Chrome) and 2018 (Justify). Even Maximum Security, the runner who finished first, but was ultimately disqualified in last year’s Kentucky Derby, won the 2019 Florida Derby.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby 2021 Schedule

Below, we will list the full schedule of the Kentucky Derby qualifications. You will see the full list of races for the Kentucky Derby Prep Season, the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, the European Road to the Kentucky Derby and the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. We will also include the list of winners of the races which have so far ended.

As the organizers are working to iron out the potential scheduling conflicts, the chances we will still see changes in the Derby preps calendar. Not to mention the uncertainty regarding the outbreak and the question of when exactly the normal racing schedule will be allowed to resume.

Kentucky Derby Prep Season 2020–2021

The Road to the Kentucky Derby started out on September 5, 2020, with Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs. Up until the mid-February, some of the greatest thoroughbred runners competed over the course of 19 races. Below, you will find the Kentucky Derby Prep races, together with the winners.

Iroquois StakesSept. 5 Churchill Downs 
American Pharoah StakesSept. 26Santa Anita
Breeders’ FuturityOct. 3Keeneland
Champagne StakesOct. 10Belmont Park
Breeders’ Cup JuvenileNov. 6Del Mar
Kentucky Jockey ClubNov. 28Churchill Downs
Los Alamitos FuturityDec. 19Los Alamitos
Remsen StakesDec. 5Aqueduct
Springboard MileDec. 18Remington Park
JeromeJan. 1Aqueduct
Sham StakesJan. 2Santa Anita
LecomteJan. 16Fair Grounds
Smarty JonesJan. 22Oaklawn Park
Robert B. LewisJan. 30Gulfstream Park
Holy BullJan. 30Gulfstream Park
WithersFeb. 6Aqueduct
Sam F. DavisFeb. 6Tampa Bay Downs
El Camino Real DerbyFeb. 13Golden Gate
SouthwestFeb. 15Oaklawn Park
John Battaglia MemorialFeb. 26Turfway Park

Kentucky Derby Championship Series 2020-2021

The Kentucky Derby Championship Series usually lasts from the end of February until April. The fact that these races give a more recent insight into the form of Kentucky Derby horses, they are worth more points.

Here is the schedule of races in the Kentucky Derby Championship Series 2020-2021 together with the winners of the races held so far. We will make sure to update the list of winners as new races unfold.

Risen StarFeb. 13Fair Grounds
Fountain of YouthFeb. 29Gulfstream Park
Gotham StakesMarch 6Aqueduct
Tampa Bay DerbyMarch 7Tampa Bay Downs
San FelipeMarch 6Santa Anita
Rebel StakesMarch 13Oaklawn Park
Louisiana DerbyMarch 20Fair Grounds
Jeff Ruby StakesMarch 27Turfway Park
Florida DerbyMarch 27Gulfstream Park
UAE DerbyMarch 27Meydan Racecourse
Sunland DerbyMarch 30Sunland Park
Blue GrassApril 1Keeneland
Santa Anita DerbyApril 3Santa Anita Park
Wood MemorialApril 3Aqueduct
Arkansas DerbyApril 10Oaklawn Park
Lexington StakesApril 10Keeneland

European Road to Kentucky Derby 2020-2021

For the third consecutive year, the Road to the Kentucky Derby in Europe is held as a stand-alone, seven-race series. Starting with the Royal Lodge Stakes in late September, the series was originally scheduled to conclude in April.

Royal Lodge StakesSept. 26Newmarket (GB)
Beresford StakesSept. 26Naas (Ire)
Prix Jean-Luc LagardèreOct. 4Chantilly (Fr)
Vertem Futurity TrophyOct. 24Doncaster (GB)
Patton StakesMarch 1Dundalk (Ire)
Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition StakesMarch 4Kempton Park (GB)
Cardinal Condition StakesApril 1Chelmsford City (GB)

Japan Road to Kentucky Derby 2019-2020

The four-race series in the Road to Kentucky Derby in Japan will yield one position in the 147th Kentucky Derby. The series starts in late November of 2020 with Cattleya Sho and normally ends with Fukuyru in late March. As Fukuryu awards the most points, the series keeps up the suspense until the very end.

Cattleya ShoNov. 28Tokyo Racecourse
Zen-Nippon Nisai YushunDec. 16Kawasaki Racecourse
HyacinthTBATokyo Racecourse
FukuyruTBANakayama Racecourse

Road to the Kentucky Oaks

The Kentucky Oaks is the filly equivalent of the Kentucky Derby. The race is limited to fourteen horses. There are also an additional four horses deemed “also eligible”, in case of a withdrawal.

Much like the Road to the Kentucky Derby, the Road to the Kentucky Oaks also has a points system of qualification. It includes 30 races total, held from September through April. Also, like in the Road to The Kentucky Derby, the top four horses in each of the races will earn points that will qualify them for Kentucky Oaks.

Kentucky Derby Points System Explained

In each of the qualifying races, the top four finishers will be awarded a number of points. During the major races in March and April, the points value is higher. 

In the next few sections, we will show you how the points are awarded in each series of races.

Prep Season

During the Prep Season, the 1st place gets 10 points, the 2nd gets 4 points, the 3rd gets 2 points and the 4th gets one point. The rules apply to all the races apart from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where the winner gets 20 points, the 2nd gets 8 points, the third gets 4 points, while the 4th gets 2 points.

Championship Series 

The Championship Series is divided into two legs. During the first leg of the series, the 1st place gets 50 points, the 2nd gets 20 points, the 3rd gets 10 points, and the 4th gets 5 points. 

The second leg features major races, which carry more points. Namely, the 1st place gets 100 points, the 2nd gets 40 points, the 3rd gets 20 points, and the 4th gets 10 points.

Jeff Ruby Steaks and Lexington are Wild Card events, with the 1st place getting 20 points, the 2nd getting 8 points, the 3rd 4 points, and the 4th 2 points.

European Road to the Kentucky Derby

When it comes to the Road to the Kentucky Derby in Europe, the first four races in 2020 award the following points: the 1st place gets 10 points, 2nd gets 4 points, 3rd gets 2 points and 4th gets 1 point. 

In the first two races in 2020, the 1st place gets 20 points, 2nd gets 8 points, 3rd gets 4 points, 4th gets 2 points. Finally, in the Cardinal Stakes, the 1st gets 30 points; 2nd gets 12 points; 3rd gets 6 points; 4th gets 3 points.

Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby

Finally, here is how the points are handed out in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. 

At Cattleya Sho, the 1st place gets 10 points, 2nd gets 4 points, 3rd gets 2 points and 4th gets 1 point. 

In the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun race, the 1st place gets 20 points, 2nd gets 8 points, 3rd gets 4 points and 4th gets 2 points. 

For the Hyacinth race, the 1st place gets 30 points, 2nd gets 12 points, 3rd gets 6 points and 4th gets 3 points. 

Finally, at Fukuyru, the 1st place gets 40 points, 2nd gets 16 points, 3rd gets 8 points and 4th gets 4 points.

Kentucky Derby Points Leaders

So, we have given you the answer to the question–how does a horse qualify for the Kentucky Derby. To recapitulate, there are 20 positions at the starting gate, with the majority of runners coming from the Main Road. An invitation will also be extended to the points leader in the European Road and the Japan Road.