How Horses Get Picked for the 2019 Derby

Written by Beulah Martin
Two horses and jockies racing around a track

The Kentucky Derby, the most famous horse race in America, will be run in 2019 on May 4th at Churchill Downs in Louisville Kentucky. This is the 145th running of this historical race which was first run in 1875.

Since it is such a prestigious race, it makes one wonder how does a horse get picked to even have the chance to run in it.

I looked up all the interesting information that would answer this question and I am sure you will find it fascinating.

How does a race horse get picked to run in the 2019 Kentucky Derby? There is a series of races that horses compete in for points. Each designated race awards points to the top four finishers of that race. The 20 horses that accumulate the most points in the season will be eligible to compete in the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May.

Each year only 20 horses qualify to earn the right to run in the greatest and most famous race in the world. I say world because racehorse owners all over the world dream of seeing their horse in the Kentucky Derby. It is a great honor to even qualify for the derby; only the best of the best get to have this experience.

What are the odds

The Kentucky Derby is a race for only three year old Thoroughbreds. A Thoroughbred is a breed of horses that has been bred for speed and agility. All race horses are registered Thoroughbreds. For the 2019 Derby, a horse would have to have been born or foaled in 2016 to be eligible to run.

According to the Jockey Club’s records

There were approximately 22,500 registered Thoroughbreds foaled in the year 2016

This figure also includes horses which were bred for other sports or different reasons.

This is the crop that will be hoping to run this year in 2019. But only about 30% of them will even make it to the race track as a two-year-old to try to become a racehorse. By January 1, of 2019 only about  1.1 % of these three-year-olds will be considered by their owners or trainers good enough to be nominated to run in the Kentucky Derby.

This has been a three year goal for their trainers. The year 2015 was the year that the owners were matching up their best broodmares with a stallion that would compliment each other.

They looked at bloodlines, speed, endurance. Were they sprinters or closers. Looking for the perfect match that they hoped would produce a “superhorse.”

If you were not breeding for your own personal foal, there were sales where the best bred and most expensive horses in the nation were available to the highest bidder.  

It was worth the money and the trouble because just having a horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby turned into power and notoriety, not to mention the great, once-in-a-lifetime thrill to actually win the coveted crown.

On race day, Saturday, May 4, 2019,  only 20 horses will have qualified to be loaded up in the starting gates.

This means that only about .005 percent of all horses foaled in 2016 will have a chance to “run for the roses” also known as “the fastest two minutes in sports.”

Not very good odds.

So how does it work?

How are the 20 horses chosen who will get to run this race? There is a point system which is given in select races. The points are given to the top four finishers in each race. The 20 horses with the most points will earn a spot in the starting gate.

There are about 46 Derby prep races which will be run this year, to help determine who will be the lucky 20.

The owners and trainers will study the different races and pick out which ones would be the most advantageous for their horse. They will take into account when and where the race is held to maximize their training schedule.

They are looking to get their horse in peak fitness at just the right time when the Kentucky Derby is scheduled. The competition will need to be studied and races chosen to give their horse the best advantage.

The series of races is divided into two phases. The Kentucky Derby Prep Season is an early season with races that are run on dirt or synthetic material for a distance of at least a mile and are held from late September 2018 and into February 2019.

The points awarded to the top four finishers are on a scale of 10-4-2-1.

  • 1st place: 10pts
  • 2nd place: 4pts
  • 3rd place: 2pts
  • 4th place: 1pt

One exception is the Breeders Cup Juvenile which awards points on a 20-8-4-2 scale.

The Kentucky Derby Championship Series is made up of two legs and there is also an extra wild card round.

The first leg has minor prep races usually Grade II, with a 50-20-10-5  scale. These graded stakes races are designated either 1, 11, 111, or 1, 2, 3 with No. 1 being the highest, the top level of competition.

The second leg consists of the Super Six prep races each worth a 100 points given to the winner. These are very exciting and competitive races:

  • FLORIDA DERBY – (G1) @ Oak Lawn Park
  • SANTA ANITA DERBY (G1) @ Santa Anita Park
  • ARKANSAS DERBY (G1) @ Oak Lawn Park
  • LOUISIANA DERBY (G2) @ Fair Ground Race Course
  • BLUE GRASS STAKES (G2) @ Keeneland Race Course
  • WOOD MEMORIAL STAKES (G2 @ Aqueduct Race Track

What if there is a tie?

If there turns out to be a tie in any of the races On The Road To The Kentucky Derby,  if two horses cross the finish line at the very same time, the points for first and second place will be added up and then divided equally between the two horses.

If there is a tie in points earned to qualify for the 20 spots, the tie-breaker will be determined by the amount of money they earned in non-restricted stake races, whether they are graded or not.

24 horses may actually win a spot according to the point system. The last four horses that earned the least points will be titled “also eligible” and will be ranked in the order in which they finished. If any horse in the top 20 has to be scratched for whatever reason, the next horse in line will take his place.

What does it cost to run in the 2019 Kentucky Derby?

In addition to qualifying, there are some fees that are required to start in the Derby. A nomination fee, an entry fee, and a starter fee.

A nomination fee of $600 is to be paid by the end of January. If not paid then a $6,000 fee is due towards the end of March.

Owners whose horses are qualified are required to pay $25,000 by May 1st and an additional $25,000 to actually start the race if they end up in the top 20.

If a horse has not been nominated in either January or March it could be entered in the Derby for the fine price of $200,000.

But seeing that the purse for The Kentucky Derby is approximately $2 million, I guess it would be worth it to enter your horse at that later date if the opportunity arises.

The Triple Crown

Winning the Kentucky Derby is outstanding by itself. But the real reward is that a win at the Kentucky Derby will give you the opportunity to go on to the next two races of what is called the Triple Crown.

The Triple Crown is a three race event which must be won by one horse. Only the horse that wins the Kentucky Derby can have a chance to do that and it must be done in the same year. These three races, each worth a million dollars, are run in just 5 weeks and at different distances. It requires a super effort from a super horse. Only 13 horses have ever been able to do it so far.

The Kentucky Derby is the first of the three at a distance of 1 ¼ miles. It is run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

Two Saturdays later the second leg called the Preakness is run at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. The distance is just a little shorter than the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/16 of a mile.

Then comes the Belmont which is by far the farthest distance these horses have probably ever had to race at 1 1/2 miles at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

This is the hard one. The real test. Can the horse go the distance? So many great horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to be beat out at the mile and a half marathon.

To make winning the Triple Crown even harder, a horse may enter one or both of the last two races without having to have run the Kentucky Derby. This means these horses will be fresh and well rested. The Kentucky Derby winner will have had two hard workouts without time for a decent rest.

American Pharaoh won it 2015 after a long spell of 37 years since we had had a triple crown winner. Last year in 2018 another super horse, Justify, thrilled us all by winning it again.

Of course, all of us who are lucky enough to be at the 2019 Kentucky Derby are hoping that it can happen again.  Good Luck and Happy Trails.

Related Questions

Can a horse race in the Kentucky Derby twice? The Kentucky Derby is an annual race for 3 year old thoroughbreds only. Each horse has one shot in a lifetime to race in the Kentucky Derby, so you will never see the same horse twice in the race.

Can a filly run in the Kentucky Derby? Fillies (female horse) can enter the Kentucky Derby just like the stallions, colts & geldings. There is no restriction, a filly will have to earn her way in with the point system just like male horses.

Has a filly ever won the Kentucky Derby? There have been three fillies who have won the Kentucky Derby: Regret in 1915, Genuine Risk in 1980 and Winning Colors in 1988.