Kentucky Derby Prep Races: The Road to the Kentucky Derby

Written By Veronica Sparks on February 15, 2022 - Last Updated on March 1, 2022
The prep races are underway a pole position in the Kentucky Derby

With prep races for the Kentucky Derby in full swing, trainers, horseracing enthusiasts, and even newbies to the sport are gearing up for the big event.

Historically, contenders qualified for the big race based on total purse earnings. Starting in 2013, Churchill Downs switched to a point system to determine qualification.

Points are earned by possible contenders over several months of prep races, and the 20 horses with the most points at the end earn a spot at the Kentucky Derby. The process is now referred to as the Road to the Kentucky Derby or the “Derby Trail.”

Four groups of Kentucky Derby prep races

Currently, four groups of races are included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby. We’ll go through:

  • The number of races in each group
  • How many points are earned and split by the top four race winners
  • Which prep races historic Kentucky Derby champions have dominated

Kentucky Derby Prep Season

The Prep Season consists of a total of 21 races. It starts in September with the Iroquois Stakes and ends in March with the John Battaglia Memorial.

Every race in the Prep Season offers a points split of 10-4-2-1, with the exception of November’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That race offers a points split of 20-8-4-2.

Kentucky Derby Championship Series

Totaling 16 races, the Championship Series places higher point values on more important races. These are events that take on a lot of bets and have seen a lot of ultimate Derby winners.

Seven races, most of which are earlier in the series, have a points split of 50-20-10-5. Eight races toward the end of the series double the rewards and have a points split of 100-40-20-10.

The eight highest point-valued races in the Championship Series are:

  • UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai
  • Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park
  • Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds
  • Wood Memorial at Aqueduct
  • Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park
  • Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park
  • Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland
  • Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park

The final race of the series, Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, has a points split of 20-8-4-2.

Over the past 10 years of Kentucky Derby races, 9 out of the 10 champions have won first or second place in at least one race of the Championship Series.

The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby

Japan’s horse races were added to the Derby mix of contenders starting in 2017. The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby started out as a series of only two races.

Races were added in both 2018 and 2019, making the Japan Road a four-race series:

  1. Cattleya Sho has a points split of 10-4-2-1
  2. Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun has a points split of 10-4-2-1
  3. Hyacinth has a points split of 30-12-6-3
  4. Fukuryu has a points split of 40-16-8-4

The horse in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby that earns the most points receives entry into the Kentucky Derby automatically.

The Europe Road to the Kentucky Derby

Another 2017 addition, the Europe Road to the Kentucky Derby consists of 7 total races that take place throughout Great Britain, France, and Ireland. Races in Europe have varying points splits between:

  • 10-4-2-1
  • 20-8-4-2
  • 30-12-6-3

Road to the Kentucky Derby race dates

Prep Season races are currently underway and will go through mid-February. The final race is the John Battaglia Memorial on March 5.

The Championship Series races will begin in mid-February with the Risen Star on February 19. The series will go all the way through the spring and end with the Lexington Stakes on April 16.

Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby started out with the Cattleya Stakes on November 27. It will end with the Fukuryu Stakes on March 26.

Europe Road to the Kentucky Derby began with Juddmonte Royal Lodge on September 25. The European Road will end with Cardinal Condition Stakes on March 31.

Time will tell which 20 contenders among the four groupings will compete in the Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2022. One thing is for sure, though. Only one champion will emerge after the Fastest Two Minutes In Sports has concluded.

Photo by Lukas Gojda/Shutterstock
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