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Having a Horse in the Race


Mint julep in hand (not really) and fancy hat set just so (again, no), I settled into the sofa this past Saturday afternoon to soak in the splendor of the Kentucky Derby. Watching the pre-race parading got me thinking… Why these 20 horses? How did they get this opportunity?

The nearly $2.2 million purse to be split among the first five finishers – not to mention the potential for a massive bump in stud fees — surely attracts thousands of would-be champions, right?

Kentucky Derby

Turns out there are two parts to the process: nomination and qualification, the latter having gone through a somewhat controversial change.

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Deciding early on that you would like your horse considered saves some serious cash as nominations submitted prior to January 27 only carry a $600 fee. That figure rises to $6000 in the two-month window that follows and, if you are really late to the party, $200,000 can get you in before the Derby.  

Oh, and should the horse qualify as one of 20 to run in the race, there’s a $25,000 entry fee and a $25,000 starting fee as well. All of this on top of the training, handling, care, and transportation costs that go into creating a contender.

Fees paid. Half the battle… well, nearly — time to test the 2- and 3-year-olds on the track.

The “Road to the Kentucky Derby” has been revamped recently. The confusing earnings-based qualifier in graded stakes races has been ousted in favor of a point system and a 36-race series. Standings of nominated horses built from those race results mark out the 20-horse field.

The altered process certainly simplifies things for those of us not in the know, but it has also had an effect on the racing calendar and on tracks around the globe. With the qualifying season redefined, many of the 200 races that hoped to feature Derby contenders are no longer considered worthy targets for the best of the best.

As Teresa Genero of alluded, the Derby’s leadership, Churchill Downs, flexed their muscle, “Without question is that Churchill Downs now exerts complete control over who qualifies for its signature race. It didn’t consult with other tracks or racing organizations as it considered changing the qualifying system, and in the fractured world of Thoroughbred racing, it didn’t have to.”

So my view-from-the-couch curiosity has led me here: owners pay to have their horses in the conversation and select qualifying races from a trimmed, Derby-determined schedule that has ruffled some feathers. From there, the horses compete, gather points, and if they sort out in the Top 20, they get the call.

Easy enough.

How did it all shake out in the 139th running of the race? This year’s winner (and pre-race odds-on favorite), Orb, finished the qualifying season tied as the top point-getter with Verrazano (150 points). Verrazano finished 14th in the Derby.  

Tell Us What You Think

Is the notoriety of being a derby contender enough to justify the cost of competing? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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(Photo credit: Velo Steve/flickr)


Rick Drummond
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