Gettin’ Lucky in Kentucky
Level: Beginner
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

So you’ve watched the Kentucky Derby a couple of times —or maybe even every year. And you’ve always wondered if there were a better way to pick the winner than going by name, number, best looking jockey outfit, or what the fine folks on TV say about the horses. Well, you’re right. There is a better way… pay attention to the Derby prep season!

America’s most famous race, the Kentucky Derby, is restricted to 3-year-old colts, geldings or fillies. All racehorses celebrate their birthday on January 1, regardless of their actual birth date. Typically, at the age of 2, they enter races for the first time, and those whose abilities stand out start running in graded stakes, which are the highest class races and pay the biggest purse money. This is important for potential Kentucky Derby contenders because the 20 available entry positions are determined by graded stakes earnings by a new point system as of 2013!

While plenty of “babies,” or juveniles, as 2-year-olds are called, do well at the track, their form won’t necessarily hold up as 3-year-olds. On the flip side, some horses mature later and don’t run until they are 3-year-olds, which means that they have a lot of ground to make up both in earnings and in experience. That’s why the real fun begins in February and March when the Derby prep races start to heat up.

And ignore the fillies at your peril! While only three (Regret, Genuine Risk and Winning Colors) have won the Kentucky Derby, fillies have proven dangerous competitors in open company in recent years. Eight Belles finished second behind Big Brown in 2008, while many argue subsequent Preakness victress Rachel Alexandra could have won the Derby if she had been entered in 2009. And don’t forget about the 2007 Belmont, in which Rags to Riches defeated Curlin, a horse who would go on to earn Horse of the Year honors in 2007 and 2008. So while the best fillies may, in fact, opt for the Kentucky Oaks, it’s a good idea to pay attention to their prep races, too.

For an excellent view of how hard it is to make it to the Kentucky Derby, we highly recommend the Hennegan Brothers’ award-winning film The First Saturday in May (buy DVD), which follows five horses and their connections (owners and trainers) on the 2006 Derby trail, including that year’s winner, Barbaro.

There are dozens of prep races for both the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, beginning in January and running through the month of April. Sign up for our Kentucky Derby Prep Alerts mailing list and we’ll send you a reminder for upcoming prep races that includes brief race histories and analysis of the contenders. Won’t you feel smart come Derby day when you not only know all the horses in the gate, but also have a better idea of their ability? It’s not about luck, it’s about knowledge.

Sign up and we’ll keep you in the loop about upcoming Kentucky Derby Prep races by sending you a preview prior to the weekends when key prep races are scheduled.

Free Past Performances for All Graded Kentucky Derby & Oaks prep races, courtesy of!

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