2015 Kentucky Derby Contenders

The Kentucky Derby is the biggest race in the sport for three year old race horses.  Most horses start their racing career as two year olds either with training or competing.  For a high level race horse the three year old campaign is essentially their ‘rookie year’.  Ironically, none of the races for older horses are as significant to mainstream fans as the Triple Crown races for three year olds despite the fact that they really don’t reach their competitive prime until age 4 or 5.

The Kentucky Derby brings together the best three year old race horses in the world on the first Saturday in May.  The field for the race is limited to 20 horses and in the past couple of decades the field is almost always full.  Before 2013 if more than 20 horses were declared for the Kentucky Derby their entry qualification would be determined by their money winnings in graded stakes races.  Now qualification is done by a points system which emphasizes the quality of races over quantity.  For that reason three year old horses now focus on the major prep races and don’t race as much in the early part of their career.  On balance, the new system produces a stronger field top to bottom.


Until the past couple of years the Kentucky Derby had a highly informal qualification process based on lifetime graded stakes earnings.  It would only come into play if more than 20 horses wanted to enter the field which has been the case in most years during the past couple of decades.  In that instance, eligibility would be determined in this manner to eliminate all but 20 horses and two ‘alternates’ (called ‘also entered’ in horse racing lingo).  This system had a number of problems.  For one, it made no qualitative distinction between the races that the horses competed in.  Of course higher stakes levels and more prestigious races pay bigger purses but that notwithstanding it gave owners incentive to enter their horses in a higher number of stakes races—some of dubious quality—during their two year old and three year old campaigns.  Another issue was that a horse could perform well in stakes races as a two year old and amass a decent amount of winnings and not need to perform as a three year old.

Two years ago the race moved to a more regimented, points based qualification system.  Horses are awarded points for their performance in specified Kentucky Derby prep races.  This has helped reestablish the top Derby prep races—a win in a race like the Santa Anita Derby or Blue Grass Stakes earns 100 points and guarantees qualification for the race.  Lower profile races and lower finishes earn fewer points.  The advantage of this format is that it emphasizes quality of performance over quantity of races and should produce a better quality of Kentucky Derby contender overall.


The end result, however, should be the same—the best three year old race horses in the sport end up being the top contenders for the Kentucky Derby.  The new qualification format has invalidated some long standing handicapping concepts—past performance is less significant in Kentucky Derby handicapping—but otherwise you’re still looking for the same things when evaluating a horse.  The best horses will still have impressive pedigrees along with top notch trainers like Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.  They’ll have the best jockeys in the sport vying to ride them.  And despite the fact that the past performance resume of Kentucky Derby contenders won’t be as extensive in the past they’ll still have recent form in high level prep races to consider as well.  Although there are some obvious disadvantages of the new qualification format (eg: it’s almost impossible for a top filly to qualify under the points system) a major upside is that it eliminates from consideration many horses that simply aren’t on the qualitative level to seriously compete.  This should make for a deeper, more talented field of Kentucky Derby contenders and more competitive and entertaining races.