The Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing is considered one of the most elusive sporting accomplishments: a back-to-back sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
But not every horse can be in the running for the Triple Crown, which a little more than a dozen horses have ever won.
To even be eligible, competitors have to go through a process that dates back to 1986, but you have to go back even further, to May 1985, to understand why.
“Rather than run in the Preakness Stakes, the old Garden State Park in New Jersey threw out a multi-million dollar race and enticed Spend A Buck to run there instead,” Darren Rogers, senior director of communications and media services for Churchill Downs Racetrack, said.
A $2 million dollar bonus persuaded Spend A Buck’s owner to break from tradition and run his horse in the Jersey Derby instead of the Preakness.
The deal was that the horse that swept the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes, Kentucky Derby and Jersey Derby would earn that multi-million dollar prize, and Spend A Buck “didn’t disappoint his owner nor his trainer,” according to the horse’s obituary in Bloodhorse. He came out on top in all of those races.
The three racetracks partnered to form Triple Crown Productions early 1986, Rogers said.
They’d operate as one, and offer their own enticing bonus prize, to make sure that the hype that comes with the possibility of being a Triple Crown champ didn’t get squashed again.
Of the tens of thousands of thoroughbreds born each year, Rogers said about 1 to 1.5% are typically eligible to compete in the major races.
But before one can dream about Triple Crown glory, horses and jockeys have to ride the “Road to the Kentucky Derby.”
Churchill Downs, Inc. began using the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” point system for the 2013 Run for the Roses, Chris Goodlett, director of curatorial and educational affairs at the Kentucky Derby Museum, said.
“The Road consists of a series of races at tracks across the world that have been identified as those that best prepare a horse for the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “Each race in the series provides points to the top four finishers.”
The three-year-old thoroughbreds with the most accrued points get priority at the 20 spots to run in the Kentucky Derby, typically the first Triple Crown race each season — last year being an exception due to the pandemic, which led to postponing the race from May to September.
Horses good enough to run in all of the Triple Crown races still have to be nominated in order to be eligible to win the sport’s major accolade.
The nomination process requires owners to file a form and a fee.
Churchill Downs’ Rogers said the early closing of the nomination process typically happens around the third week of January. That early round fee is $600.
“There’s a second phase known as the late nomination process, which is typically the third week of January all the way till the end of March,” Rogers said.
The late nomination fee will set owners back $6,000.
“Now let’s just say there’s a horse that comes out of nowhere,” Rogers continued. “You can be supplemented to the Kentucky Derby and become eligible to the other two Triple Crown races for the hefty sum of $200,000.”
Rogers said that has happened a few times in the past, but not this year.
The supplemental fees for the other Triple Crown races are $100,000 to run in the Preakness and $50,000 for the Belmont, Goodlett of the Kentucky Derby Museum said.
All horses that compete in the Derby have to be Triple Crown-nominated, but “the Triple Crown nominations and Derby points aren’t necessarily connected,” Goodlett clarified.
“You can nominate and pay the fee for a thoroughbred that has yet to run a race if you so choose,” he said, adding that the nomination process can begin before the points start accumulating. “However, you’d have to then start running your horse in points races and obtaining some points to have a chance to be one of the 20 horses in the Derby.”
Still, only those with the most earned points will get a shot at those coveted 20 spots.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Churchill Downs has limited its grandstand to 40 to 50% capacity, anticipating approximately 45,000 fans. The facility said Thursday in a press release that spectators will be expected to wear masks and “encouraged” to social distance.
WFPL’s Rick Howlett contributed this report.