Although the average spectator might not have realized it at the time, the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby in May 2013 was more historic than usual. The qualifying system for the horses was changed that year with the goal of bringing the sport’s crowning moment more in line with other sports that have some version of playoffs. The new system also guarantees that the top horses compete in the race.
Both the old system and the new one implemented by Churchill Downs -- the track that runs the Kentucky Derby -- depend on aspiring owners running their horses in a series of stakes races first. Thoroughbred racing offers two kinds of stakes races, ungraded and graded. Ungraded stakes races don’t count toward qualifying for the Derby. Graded stakes races are divided into three tiers: 1, 2 and 3. Grade 3 stakes are the least competitive and Grade 1 stakes are usually run by the best of the best.
The Old System
Under the old system in place from 1986 until 2012, horses qualified for the Kentucky Derby based on how much money they earned in graded stakes races up until the date of the Derby. Horses earn money by winning shares of the race purse when they finish first, second and third, and sometimes even fourth and fifth. Each time a horse finished “in the money,” he and his owners were a bucketful of dollars closer to qualifying. A drawback to this system was that owners and trainers could ship their horses all over the country or even the world, looking for the least amount of competition. A horse might have won a lot of money, but he didn’t necessarily have to beat excellent horses to do it. Roughly 185 graded stakes races are run yearly, and this offered a lot of opportunity.
The New System
The new system whittles qualifying stakes races down to 36. Churchill Downs selected “Kentucky Derby Prep Races” from some of the best and most competitive graded stakes run each year and horses are limited to running in these to try to qualify. To help make the competition worldwide, one of the races is run in England -- Newmarket’s Royal Lodge Stakes -- and the U.A.E. Derby is run in Dubai and Canada hosts the Grey Stakes. The end result is that owners and trainers now must go head to head with some other very good horses in these select races. There’s a bit of PR involved, too -- the new system promotes the chance that the same horses will race against each other a time or two leading up to the Derby. Think rivalries and good story lines, like the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Each of the 36 races is grouped into one of four divisions and horses earn points for finishing first, second, third or fourth based on the level of competition. From September until February, designated as Kentucky Derby Prep Season, the first finisher gets 10 points, followed by four points, two points and one point for the horses finishing behind him. The Kentucky Derby Championship Season runs from the end of February through Derby Day, about 10 weeks. These are typically more competitive races and they earn 50, 20, 10 and five points respectively. The Championship Season is followed up by the most prestigious and difficult races: the Wood Memorial, the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby, the Santa Anita Derby, the Louisiana Derby, the Toyota Blue Grass and the U.A.E. Derby in Dubai. These races earn finishers a whopping 100, 40, 20 and 10 points for first through fourth finishes. There are a couple of last opportunities in a “wildcard” category: the Lexington Stakes and Churchill Downs’ Derby Trial. They offer points of 20, eight, four and two. The 20 horses with the highest cumulative scores get to run in the Kentucky Derby.