Do you dream of entering a horse in the Kentucky Derby? It is the dream of every race horse owner, to be sure. Most will never realize that dream because of how points are earned for the Kentucky Derby. It’s not as simple as showing up on the first Saturday in May with a horse and saying you want to compete in the Run for the Roses.
The Kentucky Derby has to have a way to limit entries for the race. This serves many purposes. It’s main purpose is to make sure that only the most talented horses are allowed to compete. Here’s a look at how the qualifying process has evolved. We will also take a look at how Churchill Downs is now using the current system to prevent horses trained by Bob Baffert from entering the race.
Getting Into the Kentucky Derby – The Nomination Years
The original system for getting into the Kentucky Derby was somewhat complex. It also required horse owners to stake a lot of money on the mere chance that their horse would be chosen to run. Owners would also have to put up money well in advance of a horse ever stepping on a race track for the first time. If something happened to the horse, that money was just lost.
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This is how the stakes nomination system worked. There are still many stakes races which use nomination today. Basically, the owner of a horse would nominate the horse for a certain race by paying a hefty fee. For races like the Kentucky Derby the fee could be $100,000 or more. This amount of money was used to help provide the purses for the race, and paying it was the only way to have a chance to run.
In the case of the Kentucky Derby the nomination system was even more complex. Not only were owners required to nominate their horse to the race, they also had to nominate horses for the Triple Crown. This required a separate fee. Only horses that were Triple Crown nominated could compete for the most prestigious award in racing. No one in their right mind would bother to enter the Kentucky Derby with a horse that was not Triple Crown nominated. Can you imagine winning all three races and not receiving the Triple Crown?
This system stayed in place for decades. As a whole it worked well. Then, horsemen began to lament the fact that some talented horses were not getting in. Only 20 horses could be selected each year no matter how many were nominated. Officials began to look for a way that horses could earn their spot, just like an athlete must earn a spot into the Olympics.
Only the Most Worthy – A New Points System
As the years have progressed a number of races have become known as prep races for the Kentucky Derby. These races are held in various states and are restricted to three-year old horses. A few of them are the Florida Derby, the Louisiana Derby, and the Bluegrass Stakes. The Wood Memorial is also a famous prep. It was one of Secretariat’s prep races, and one of his few losses.
In the old days a prep race would not necessarily guarantee you a spot in the Derby, but it would improve your chances. Prep races also help to identify which horses are legitimate contenders. As these races are conducted, more and more horses begin to drop off of the Triple Crown trail. They do this because their trainers have started to realize that their horse is not talented enough for the race.
Someone came up with the idea to use prep races as a way to qualify horses for entry into the Kentucky Derby. Points would be awarded for a horse’s performance in a prep race, and those points would be used to determine which horses could enter. A certain number of points would be required. This system also had the benefit of getting talented horses to enter the smaller prep races when points were needed.
This system has now been in place for quite a few years, and it is working very well. The most talented horses are finding their way to the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Concerns Over the Auxiliary Gate
You may be wondering why a system is necessary in the first place for entries into the Kentucky Derby. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of thoroughbred horses registered each year in the United States. If there were no system in place to reward the most talented, many unworthy horses would be entered in the Kentucky Derby.
In fact, there is a famous story about this very thing. It is related to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. The horse Rick’s Natural Star was famously entered when its owner should have known it had no chance to win. Maybe they did know and just wanted the attention. Either way, the inclusion of the horse prompted the Breeders’ Cup to change the rules regarding its entries.
In the Kentucky Derby there is a practical reason why only a limited number of horses are allowed to participate in the race. The race uses an extra starting gate which makes it possible to start a maximum of 20 horses in the race. The auxiliary gate is attached to the end of the regular gate, and it has been the source of controversy. Many have claimed that the auxiliary gate is not safe.
It is unlikely that the auxiliary gate will go away, but it is also safe to assume that no more than 20 horses will ever be able to run in the Kentucky Derby.
As of 2021, those horses will not include ones trained by the most successful trainer of the modern era. Here is how Churchill Downs is using the points system to effectively ban trainer Bob Baffert from the Kentucky Derby.
How Churchill Downs Used the Points System to Ban Bob Baffert
All horse racing fans today have got to be familiar with Bob Baffert. The silver-haired icon won two Triple Crown titles during the 2010s with American Pharoah and Justify. Sadly, Baffert has found himself charged with medication violations on numerous occasions. In 2021 a horse trained by Baffert won the Kentucky Derby but tested positive for banned substances.
Medina Spirit was ultimately disqualified from its win in the Kentucky Derby, and Baffert was banned by the track. Now, Churchill Downs has taken matters a step farther. Bob Baffert’s horses cannot earn points for the Kentucky Derby. This new rule by Churchill Downs prevents points from being awarded to horses that are trained by individuals that have been banned. Baffert is currently appealing his punishment in the court system.
Do you think it is right for a trainer to be punished this way? How do you feel about the points system of the Kentucky Derby? Be sure to chime in with your comments to let us know. In USA check out Twinspires, AmWager, BetAmerica or Bovada for online horse betting!