When it comes down to the last of the 20 horses to make the Kentucky Derby gate each year, every point matters.

More importantly, the last few horses to make the Derby gate have had major repercussions on the exacta, trifecta, and superfecta results, so keeping track of the final qualifiers is an important handicapping exercise.

With 32 points, Lookin At Lee was the second-to-last horse to sneak into the 2017 gate, then finished second at 32/1 odds behind the favored Always Dreaming.

Last year, Instilled Regard was the last horse to qualify with only 29 points, but he blew up the bottom of the superfecta at monstrous 85/1 odds.

Back in 2013 and 2014, the first two years of the Derby Points Era, low-point scorers Golden Soul and Commanding Curve snuck into the gate and would each earn runner-up finishes at long odds.

Horse Racing Picks

Along the roller-coaster ride that is the 2019 Kentucky Derby trail, the last few horses in the the gate may be more important than ever. Not much separates the top of the crop from the bottom of the Top 20.

With three Derby points races this weekend each doling out 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers, a lot may change quickly in the Derby standings. Followed up with next weekend’s Arkansas Derby (G1) (under the same points structure) and the Lexington Stakes (G3) (giving out last-gasp points of 20-8-4-2), we won’t know the threshold to get into the gate for at least a couple of weeks.

Throw in the unpredictability of defections due to injuries or owner/trainer decisions to bypass the Derby, coupled with the possibility of horses entering via qualification from the European and Japanese Roads to the Kentucky Derby, and predicting how many points needed to make the Derby gate becomes a daunting task.

I haven’t met a challenge that I’ll back down from yet, so let’s dig into the data and try to predict how the field will fill for the Run for the Roses.

Lookin At Lee (center with red cap) was the runner-up in the 2017 Kentucky Derby despite only earning 32 points (Credit: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)

The Chalk-Out Scenario

Using the Derby Trail Tracker to see where the biggest horses will line up in the coming weeks, we can work out a scenario where the likely favorites win and place in the upcoming races, thus taking the majority of the points. Additionally, we will assume that horses who have accrued enough points to be on the bubble up to this point will finish third and fourth, thereby earning enough points to get into the 30- to 50-point range. We can then predict the maximum amount earned by the top 22 horses (in points order) for the Derby here:

  1. Tacitus – 150
  2. Game Winner – 145
  3. Improbable – 125
  4. Vekoma – 110
  5. Plus Que Parfait – 104*
  6. By My Standards – 100*
  7. Maximum Security – 100*
  8. Omaha Beach – 77.5
  9. Code of Honor – 74*
  10. Long Range Toddy – 73.5
  11. Haikal – 60
  12. War of Will – 60*
  13. Signalman – 58
  14. Tax – 52
  15. Cutting Humor – 50*
  16. Mucho Gusto – 44
  17. Somelikeithotbrown – 40
  18. Spinoff – 40*
  19. Bodexpress – 40*
  20. Country House – 40
  21. Roadster – 40
  22. Outshine – 40

Notes: Gray Magician (who has earned 41 points) is not listed because his connections said that it’s “highly unlikely” that he’ll run in the Kentucky Derby after his runner-up finish in the UAE Derby (G2).

*Denotes horse that has already run his final Derby prep and is done accruing points.

Kentucky Derby Contenders

In the projection above, it will take at least 40 points to make the Derby gate, the highest minimum ever in the Derby Points Era (with the previous high being Mo Town’s 32 points to make the 2016 gate).

Additionally, with six horses all sitting at 40 points in the above prediction, there may be a traffic jam. The tie-breaker between these horses would be non-restricted stakes earnings (not shown in the prediction above).

Before you flip out, realize that this is only one scenario. I’ll take you through the “chalk-out” predictions in the last five Derby points races that led to the projection above. First, let’s take a look at the next four horses in the Derby points standings:

23. Sueno – 36
24. Bourbon War – 31*
25. Anothertwistafate – 30
26. Instagrand – 30

Note: Bourbon War and Anothertwistafate, two of the top prospects for the Derby, would need three or four defections in order to make the Derby gate if the predicted field above comes to fruition. Trainer Blaine Wright has said that it is possible that Anothertwistafate runs in the Arkansas Derby or the Lexington if he needs more points.

Anothertwistafate, seen winning the El Camino Real Derby, was also second in the Sunland Derby, yet he still may not make the Kentucky Derby gate (Vassar Photography)

Race-By-Race Chalk-Out Scenario – Wood

Starting with the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) this Saturday at Aqueduct, here are the projected top four finishers based on expected favoritism in the race, along with their previously-accrued points and the added points earned from how they finish in the Wood:

1st Tacitus: 50 + 100 = 150 points
2nd Tax: 12 + 40 = 52
3rd Outshine: 20 + 20 = 40
4th Haikal: 50 + 10 = 60

The Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner Tacitus is already in the Derby gate with 50 points for trainer Bill Mott, and if he wins the Wood, his grand total (150) will top all runners.

The Withers Stakes (G3) winner Tax has been waiting for the Wood for two months. Danny Gargan’s pupil will need to run at least second in the Wood to assure himself a spot in the Derby, as he currently only has 12 points.

The Wood horse that can burst the Derby bubble is Todd Pletcher’s Outshine. The Tampa Bay Derby runner-up earned 20 points for that performance, and if he runs third in the Wood, then he’ll get another 20 points to put him squarely on the Derby threshold.

The stretch-out sprinter Haikal is already in the Derby gate with 50 points earned from his Gotham Stakes (G3) win. Slotting him with a fourth-place Wood finish would bring his total to 60, though if he does run fourth, it’s possible that trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and owner Shadwell Stable may decide to bypass the Derby in favor of cut-back opportunities.

Tacitus will again run against Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Outshine in the Wood (Credit: SV Photography)

Race-By-Race Chalk-Out Scenario – Blue Grass

Next up is the wide-open Blue Grass Stakes (G2) on Saturday at Keeneland. Here is that race’s chalk-out projection:

1st. Vekoma = 10 + 100 = 110
2nd. Signalman = 18 + 40 = 58
3rd. Somelikeithotbrown = 20 + 20 = 40
4th. Country House = 30 + 10 = 40

Vekoma has only earned 10 points, courtesy of his third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), but he may be the betting favorite in the Blue Grass. If he wins, the George Weaver trainee would skyrocket up the standings to 110 overall.

Signalman is a potential Derby bubble-burster running in the Blue Grass. A second-place finish would add 40 points to his previously-accrued 18, putting him in the gate for trainer Kenny McPeek. He was a no-show in his 2019 debut, the Fountain of Youth, but he brings back class from his juvenile campaign and could employ his closing kick to get into the Blue Grass picture late.

Somelikeithotbrown will return to the dirt for the first time since his Saratoga debut. In the time between, he has been very classy on both turf and synthetic. He’s another bubble-popper, having earned 20 points from winning the Jeff Ruby Steaks over the synthetic Turfway Park track last month. If he gets third in the Blue Grass, then he’ll be another sitting at the ubiquitous number of 40.

Mott said that he may bring Country House back on short rest from his fourth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (G2) two weeks back, with an eye on earning more Derby points than his current 30. If he shows up in the Blue Grass and gets fourth again, then you can add him to the 40-point scrum.

Trainer Mark Casse sends the points-less Dream Maker hoping to get at least second to put himself in that mix as well.

You may have realized by now that we’re building a maximum points scenario where all of the horses that have already earned points are likely to get just enough in the final round to bring them right in line with the 40-point threshold.

Can Dream Maker be an upset threat to take 40 or 100 points towards the Derby in the Blue Grass? (Credit: Coady Photography)

Race-By-Race Chalk-Out Scenario – Santa Anita Derby

Moving out to the west coast for the smallish field of the Santa Anita Derby (G1) this Saturday, the strong favorite Game Winner is projected to win in our chalk-out scenario:

1st. Game Winner: 45 + 100 = 145
2nd. Roadster: 0 + 40 = 40
3rd. Instagrand: 10 + 20 = 30
4th. Nolo Contesto: 0 + 10 = 10

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Game Winner already has 45 points, so winning the Santa Anita Derby would bring him to 145 overall and also cement him as the Kentucky Derby favorite for his five-time Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert.

A Baffert exacta may be likely here if Roadster lives up to the hype that has surrounded him since last summer. He’d get 40 points for running second, even though he has yet to run in a Derby prep and needs to either finish first or second in order to have Derby dreams.

Another hype horse since last summer, the Best Pal Stakes (G2) winner Instagrand, also gets his last shot at Derby dreams. With only 10 points earned from a third-place Gotham finish, he needs to either win or finish second in order to move on to Louisville. A third-place finish would only bring the Jerry Hollendorfer charge to 30 points overall and likely leave him on the outside looking in.

Everyone else that is listed as probable for the Santa Anita Derby, including Nolo Contesto and Extra Hope, need to win or finish second in order to make the Derby gate.

Roadster working in mid-March towards the Santa Anita Derby (Credit: Ernie Belmonte)

Race-By-Race Chalk-Out Scenario – Arkansas Derby

On the final day of Derby points races next Saturday, April 13, the Arkansas Derby should feature a strong cast, with this as the likely superfecta based on expected favoritism:

1st. Improbable: 25 + 100 = 125
2nd. Omaha Beach: 37.5 + 40 = 77.5
3rd. Long Range Toddy: 53.5 + 20 = 73.5
4th. Galilean: 7.5 + 10 = 17.5

With only 25 points to date, the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) winner Improbable needs to hit the board at Oaklawn to assure himself a spot in the Run for Roses, and the Baffert trainee may add blinkers for this race.

The two divisions of the Rebel Stakes (G2) were won by Long Range Toddy and Omaha Beach. If they run second and third here, then their total points would each end up in the 70s.

The hyped California-bred Galilean will need to win or finish second in order to make the Derby gate, as he only received 7.5 points for running third in one of the Rebel divisions.

Baffert added blinkers to Improbable for his recent gallop (seen here) and his most recent workout (Credit: Jim Safford)

Race-By-Race Chalk-Out Scenario – Lexington

Raced at Keeneland on the same day as the Arkansas Derby, the Lexington only gives out 20-8-4-2 to the top four finishers, so we’ll only project the top two finishers for that race:

1st. Mucho Gusto = 24 + 20 = 44
2nd. Sueno = 28 + 8 = 36

Following a disappointing third in the Sunland Park Derby (G3) after he set blazing fractions, Baffert has pointed his multiple graded stakes winner Mucho Gusto to the Lexington. He’s eyeing the 20 points that he’ll need to make the Derby gate, if he wins there.

It’s merely speculation that trainer Keith Desormeaux will point Sueno to the Lexington, like he did last year with My Boy Jack to assure him a spot in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. With 28 points accumulated after running third in the Louisiana Derby (just like My Boy Jack last year), Sueno may need to continue replicating his stablemate and win the Lexington, but his connections have not yet made their intentions known.

Can Mucho Gusto return to the winner’s circle in the Lexington like he did here in February’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3)? (Credit: Jim Safford)

How Much Will It Take?

It’s a daunting task to try to predict anything on this Derby trail, and the above projection is just one example of what can happen over the next two weeks. We could easily see unexpected results where horses with zero points take first and second in some of these races, which would flip the standings on its ear.

If one or more runners come over through the Japanese and European Roads to the Kentucky Derby, then the qualifying floor will be raised even higher.

For Derby bubble boys like Bourbon War (at 31 points) and Anothertwistafate (30), they will need to hope that any horses who are currently qualified to make the Derby continue winning: Tacitus, Game Winner, and Long Range Toddy.

Just as important, horses on the bubble need to hope that those currently in the 10- to 20-point range don’t finish third or better in the final preps. These include Outshine, Tax, Vekoma, Signalman, Somelikeithotbrown, and Instagrand.

As the Derby points era has evolved and matured, we have seen a strong trend in how many points the final qualifiers will need in order to make the Churchill gate on the first Saturday of May. With a few defections expected in the coming weeks, it’s possible that the last horse in will need less than 40 points, but for right now, we can use 40 as the current bar to make the Derby gate.

I’ll be covering the Wood Memorial Day live from Aqueduct on Saturday, so please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for my continued work as we draw closer to May 4 and the Kentucky Derby.