Having the fastest 3-year-old horse in the world isn’t enough to land a spot in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Instead, any Derby hopeful needs to qualify against the best competition via the “Road to the Kentucky Derby,” a series of designated prep races at tracks across the country and around the world. Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each prep race, and ultimately, the 20 horses with the most points earn the right to a spot in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses, with ties in the points standings broken by earnings in nonrestricted stakes races.
If there are enough defections from qualified horses, 3-year-olds who hadn’t previously been nominated for the Triple Crown can be added to the field for an additional fee. The final field will be set on Tuesday for Saturday’s race.
Horse racing officials introduced the Road to the Kentucky Derby in 2012 to simplify the process of qualifying for what is typically the first leg of the Triple Crown. Instead of top-earning sprinters flooding the field, prospects must navigate three distinct phases of qualifying: the prep season, the championship series and two wild-card events.
Traditionally, the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but due to the risks associated with the novel coronavirus, the prestigious event was shifted out of May for the first time in 75 years and moved to Sept. 5.
That touched off a series of changes unique to 2020. The Belmont Stakes was moved to June 20 and became the first leg of the Triple Crown while simultaneously serving as a prep race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, awarding qualification points to the top four finishers on a 150-60-30-15-point basis. It was also shortened from 1½ miles to 1⅛ miles. The Preakness Stakes, moved to Oct. 3, is now the final leg of the Triple Crown. Two other key 3-year-old events, the Travers Stakes and the Haskell Invitational, also were added to the prep calendar, allowing horses to compile record-breaking qualification points.
This year’s Derby favorite, Tiz the Law, leads the field with 372 points, accumulated via wins in the Florida Derby, the Belmont Stakes and the Travers Stakes, among others. The previous high was 170 points, recorded by International Star in 2015. Authentic also topped that mark this year with 200 points.
Sensational filly Swiss Skydiver will bypass the Run for the Roses in favor of the Kentucky Oaks. Country Grammer (50 points), Shivaree (40 points) and Anneau d’Or (32 points) already have opted out of the Kentucky Derby, opening the door for horses with lower point totals.
There are two ways for foreign horses to qualify for the Kentucky Derby field at the expense of the top 20 in points on the American circuit. The Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby (four races) extends an invite to a horse based in Japan, and the European Road to the Kentucky Derby (seven races) is an entryway for the top European finisher in this series.
But this year, neither Cafe Pharoah, the points leader on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby series, nor Danon Pharaoh, who was second on that leader board, will make the trip to Churchill Downs. All horses on the European Road to the Kentucky Derby also opted out, leaving all 20 available Derby slots open to American thoroughbreds.