How Do Horses Qualify For The Kentucky Derby?

How Do Horses Qualify For The Kentucky Derby

Competing in the Kentucky Derby is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for horses because they must be a three-year-old thoroughbred to qualify for the race. The top twenty horses that have accumulated the most points along the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” earn a spot to race on the famous Churchill Downs Racetrack.


Thoroughbred Horses

Thoroughbred horses are the only type of horse allowed to compete in the Kentucky Derby. They are purebred horses bred specifically for their speed and strength. Thoroughbred horses must have a lineage that traces back to one of three horses: Darley Arabian, the Godolphin Arabian, and the Byerly Turk. These three horses were selected purely for their strength and agility to be bred and create lines of high-performance horses. 

Each racehorse must be DNA tested to confirm its relation to one of the three original sires. The most successful sire has been Darley Arabian. Over 95% of racehorses today can be traced back to this horse’s DNA. 

The Road to the Kentucky Derby

Only twenty thoroughbred horses qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Each one must earn their spot by being one of the best performers in the prep races leading up to the derby, also known as The Road to the Kentucky Derby.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby begins in September and finishes in April, right before the Kentucky Derby is held on the first Saturday of May. Over this time period, there are 35 prep races. These races take place across seven states: New York, California, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Kentucky. Additionally, there are prep races that take place in the U.K., Japan, Ireland, U.A.E., and France. 

Points are awarded to the horses that finish in the top four of each race. The potential points top-finishing horses can earn per race increase as the Kentucky Derby approaches.

The Point System

For the first five months of the Road to the Kentucky Derby starting in September, the points are on a 10-4-2-1 scale as follows:

  • First place earns 10 points
  • Second place earns 4 points
  • Third place earns 2 points
  • Fourth place earns 1 point

The Breeders Cup Juvenile race is held annually in late October or early November. This race is one of the most prestigious of the Road to the Kentucky Derby, so potential points are doubled:

  • First place earns 20 points
  • Second place earns 8 points
  • Third place earns 4 points
  • Fourth place earns 2 points

Horses have the chance to win more points as the Kentucky Derby nears. In mid-February at the Risen Star Stakes, the point values increase:

  • First place earns 50 points
  • Second place earns 20 points
  • Third place earns 10 points
  • Fourth place earns 5 points

By the end of March, the point values double for winning horses:

  • First place earns 100 points
  • Second place earns 40 points
  • Third place earns 20 points
  • Fourth place earns 10 points

The twenty horses with the highest accumulated points qualify for the Kentucky Derby, and fans enjoy using the Road to the Kentucky Derby to pick their favorites. The point system often predicts what horses will perform well in the race. Since the qualifying system was created in 2013, horses with more than 100 points have won every Kentucky Derby on all but two occasions.