A Guide to the Kentucky Derby Qualifying Races (2024 Guide)

The Kentucky Derby is one of the oldest horse racing events in the United States. No wonder it’s considered one of the most highly-coveted equestrian competitions across the nation. More than this, the Derby is the first jewel of the world-renowned Triple Crown Series, making it the most-attended and most-watched horse race in the country and perhaps around the globe.

Every competing horse’s journey to this race is tough. They would first run in fierce qualifying races to secure their spot in the Derby. Well, there are many prep races for the Kentucky Derby, but if you are curious about the ones with the most winners, then you are in the right place.

Florida Derby

Florida Derby
Source: miamiherald.com

Held Annually at Gulfstream Park, Hallandale Beach, Florida, the Florida Derby is known as a prestigious prep race for the Kentucky Derby. First inaugurated in 1952, this prep race has 1 ⅛ official distance on the dirt track. It comprises three-year-old American thoroughbreds putting themselves out there for a spot in the first leg of the Triple Crown Series. Currently, it boasts a purse totalling $1 million.

For the record, this competition has produced 21 horses who have won one or two Triple Crown Classics, including the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. The most recent winner is Always Dreaming in 2017. If you regularly bet with TVG.com, you know this horse was the post-time favorite in the race.

Wood Memorial

Wood Memorial Stakes is a Grade 2 America flat race for three-year-old thoroughbreds. This prep race is held annually at the Aqueduct Racetrack, Ozone Park, Queens, New York. Like the Florida Derby, it has an official distance of 1 ⅛ miles or 9 furlongs.

It has been hosting winning thoroughbreds since 1925, and today, its total purse has reached $750,000. As a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby, the Wood Memorial has produced 11 winners in the first leg of the Triple Crown Series. Four out of these 11 thoroughbreds were the eventual winners of the Triple Crown.

Blue Grass Stakes

The Blue Grass Stakes, or the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, is a Grade I race for three-year-old thoroughbreds. This major prep race is annually held at Keeneland Race Course, Lexington, Kentucky. The Toyota Motor Corporation proudly sponsors it.

Competed at 1 ⅛ miles, the Blue Grass Stakes takes pride in its purse, totalling $1 million. The race’s title was inspired by the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, known as the heart of the thoroughbred racing industry, for its grass having bluish-green culms.

Santa Anita Derby

Santa Anita Derby
Source: latimes.com

The Santa Anita Derby is one of the final prep races for the official Road to Kentucky Derby. It has an official race distance of 1 ⅛ miles, just like the previous prep races we have discussed. This is annually held at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, California, and it has been renewing its seasons since 1935.

It became an official prep race for the Road to Kentucky Derby in 2010, granting winners 100 points, which guarantees a position in the starting gate of the race. Since its inauguration, the Santa Anita has produced 10 Kentucky winners. More than that, seven losers in the race have gone on to win in the Derby.

Arkansas Derby

Arkansas Derby, a Grade I race for three-year-old colts/geldings and fillies, has produced the 12th Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. This iconic winner also won the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The official venue of this prep race is Oaklawn Park Race Track, Hot Springs, Arkansas. It has an official race distance of 1 ⅛ miles and is annually competed on a dirt track. Presently, this boasts a total purse of $1,250,000.

Louisiana Derby

Inaugurated in 1894, the Louisiana Derby has an official race distance of 1 3/16 miles. This prep race is open to three-year-old thoroughbreds willing to try their luck on the $1 million purse. It is regularly held at the Fair Grounds Race Course, New Orleans, Louisiana.

In history, two winners of the Louisiana Derby won the Kentucky Derby. These legendary thoroughbreds were Black Gold in 1924 and Grindstone in 1996. Risen Star, the 1988 Louisiana champ, also became a “Dual Classic Winner” after securing first place in Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

Jeff Ruby Steaks

Jeff Ruby Steaks
Source: cincinnatimagazine.com

Raced on Tapeta, the Jeff Ruby Stakes is one of the most popular prep races for the Kentucky Derby. It is sponsored by Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment annually, showcasing three-year-old colts, geldings, and fillies in Turfway Park, Florence, Kentucky. The Jeff Ruby Stakes’ official race distance is 1 ⅛ miles. As of 2023, this prep race claims to offer a $700,000 purse to the toughest challenger.

Tampa Bay Derby

Carrying a purse of $400,000, the Tampa Bay Derby is annually hosted by Tampa Bay Downs, Oldsmar, Florida. The first one took place in 1981, and in its history, it had one winner who also dominated the Kentucky in 2007, in the name of Street Sense. Moreover, Super Saver, who was its third placer in 2010, also won the Kentucky competition.

Lexington Stakes

Races in Keeneland Racecourse, Lexington, Kentucky, were open to three-year-old thoroughbreds and had a $400,000 purse. Its initial races were hosted from 1936 to 1942. It took a break and resumed in 1973 as Calumet Purse.

Today, it’s known as the Lexington Stakes, scheduled after the Blue Grass Stakes. In 2013, it was officially dubbed a Wild Card Event as the last race with qualification points for the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

UAE Derby

UAE Derby jpg
Source: independent.ie

The Group 2 flat horse race UAE Derby is also a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby. It currently offers a purse totalling $2.5 million. This race is held annually at the Meydan Racecourse, Dubai and is open to three-year-olds (in the Northern Hemisphere) and four-year-olds (in the Southern Hemisphere). It has a total race distance of 1,900 meters or 1 3/16 miles.

Final Thoughts

As bettors and spectators of a racing event as big as the Kentucky Derby, it’s important to clearly understand a horse’s ability on the track. By looking at their previous performances, especially in these major prep races, it will be easier to gauge a horse’s power and capacity to dominate an upcoming race. With this list of qualifying races, we hope you are more confident about your picks in the upcoming Run for the Roses.