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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Liane Crossley: Odds are against making it
to the Derby, much less winning the big race

The Kentucky Derby is held the first Saturday in May. (Photo from KentuckyTourism.com)


Just as most parents like to believe their children can grow up to be president, Thoroughbred owners and their connections like to believe their racehorses can one day win the Kentucky Derby. Whether the animal is a frisky newborn, a strapping yearling or a promising runner, its people wonder—often aloud—if this is the one who will wear the coveted blanket of roses at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Unlike the United States presidency that allows candidates to run multiple times, however, there is only one shot at the Kentucky Derby because it is limited to 3-year-olds. That means only one of the nearly 30,000 Thoroughbreds born in North America in 2010 can win this year’s Kentucky Derby on May 4. Horses born in other countries are eligible but rarely are entered.

While America’s most storied race is open to both genders, the 1 ¼ -mile event generally attracts only colts and geldings, which reduces the mathematical probability of winning to somewhere around 1 in 15,000. The number is whittled down through natural attrition ranging from sickness and injury to simply lacking enough talent.

By late winter, fewer than 100 horses are considered legitimate Derby candidates. That number dwindles further with a series of spring prep races—such as the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky on March 23 and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 13—that further separate the contenders from the pretenders.

A clear picture of serious Derby hopefuls comes into focus about two weeks before the race. By then, a few late bloomers have joined the mix, logical starters have confirmed their strengths and former candidates have detoured away from the road to the Derby. If more than 20 horses remain by entry time three days before the race, preference is given to those that have accumulated the most points in a performance-based system.

In past years, final starters were determined by a different system based on horses’ earnings, but Churchill Downs unveiled a new plan for 2013. The new points system is based on a 36-race series that awards points to the first four finishers in each race. The top 20 point earners that have been nominated to the Triple Crown will earn spots in the starting gate.

Deadlines and payments

The Kentucky Derby is open to properly registered Thoroughbreds that are 3 years old on their official birth date of Jan. 1, 2013 regardless of their actual birthday. The 2009 winner Mine That Bird was eight days shy of being age 3 on Derby Day but he and his peers all became a year older the preceding New Year’s Day.

To make their horses officially eligible for the 2013 Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes), owners ponied up a $600 nomination fee per horse by Jan. 26. A late nomination fee of $6,000 per horse has a March 23 deadline. If neither payment is made, owners have a final option of paying $200,000 three days prior to the Derby, but only if fewer than 24 Triple Crown-nominated horses are entered. In other words, a horse previously nominated at the lower rates can not be bumped by a horse whose owner is willing to pay the bigger bucks.

An overflow list of 24 entrants is allowed to ensure a full field if one or more of the original entrants is scratched (withdrawn) the day before the race. If this occurs, the horse with the highest points has preference over the others to “draw in” to the Derby. Post positions are determined by a drawing on the afternoon of May 1. If there are no defections among the top 20, any extra horses on the “also eligible list” automatically are withdrawn.

In addition to the nomination fees, owners must pay $25,000 to enter the Derby by 10 a.m. ET on the Wednesday preceding the Derby, and an additional $25,000 to start on race day.

Meeting payment deadlines is the easiest part of the Derby equation. Of course, earning a starting berth may not be enough to actually compete if the horse is not up to the task. Such was the case with Ive Struck a Nerve, who went from unknown to point leader to non-starter within a two-week span. On Feb. 23, the colt won an important Derby prep at odds of 135-to-1 and vaulted to the top of the leader board. But his Derby dream ended on March 9 when he went to the sidelines with an ankle injury.

The newest leader is Will Take Charge with 60 points. Four horses—Vyjack, Orb, Verrazano, and Hear the Ghost are tied for second with 50 points each through March 16.


Lexington-based freelance writer Liane Crossley is a lifelong lover of Thoroughbred racing who has held a variety of jobs in both barns and offices. Her favorite part of the industry is being with the horses and the people who share her passion for them.



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