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How do you qualify for the Kentucky Derby? How the Run For The Roses prep races work

The Road to the Kentucky Derby involves a complicated points system to determine the best three-year-old horses in the world.

Zandon, with Flavien Prat up, wins the Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday, April 9, 2022, at Keeneland race course. Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

There are about 20,000 thoroughbred horses born and registered with The Jockey Club each year, but only 20 slots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby. Narrowing the list of horses with connections that want to compete in the Run for the Roses is a process, and The Road to the Kentucky Derby points series is what’s used to select the field.

Starting in 2013 Churchill Downs began a points system for designated stakes races across the United States, with races increasing in value as the Run For The Roses gets closer. The competition begins for two-year-olds as juveniles, with each horse earning points for finishing in the top four of a Grade I, II, or III stakes race designated by Churchill Downs.

The races start the previous September, and in 2022 conclude with the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 16th. After that last race, the horses that will be invited to post for the 2022 Kentucky Derby will be known.

The early races in The Road series aren’t worth as much as the later ones, with just 10 points given for first place in event such as the Breeder’s Futurity or the Champagne Stakes, both fixtures for two-year-olds taking place in October the year prior to the Derby.

The peak time to earn points are a series eight races from the last weekend in March to the second weekend in April (Louisiana Derby, UAE Derby, Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby, Jeff Ruby Stakes, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Bluegrass Stakes). Those eight give 100 points to the winner, 40 points for second place, 20 for third, and 10 for fourth.

But since a horse can’t race in more than one of them, there is strategy involved in selecting a track during these key weekends. Generally any horse with more than 40 points or more can feel good about their chances to get a gate on the first Saturday in May in Louisville.

There is also a European Road to the Kentucky Derby, as well as a Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, but just the top horse from each foreign competition is invited to participate at Churchill Downs for The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports. Often the connections of these horses choose to leave them abroad, so these spots are usually rejected and the next American horse up on the list substitutes.