Which Region Will Produce the 2022 Derby Winner?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

When it comes to preparing for the Kentucky Derby (G1), there's no such thing as a one-size fits all approach. At this point, there are no fewer than nine distinct paths horses can follow to qualify for the Derby.

But not every path is created equal—some paths to the Derby are more productive than others. Looking ahead to the 2022 Kentucky Derby, let's review the nine main roads to the roses, then use historical data to rate (on a one-to-five scale) their likelihood of producing the Derby champ.


The Arkansas route to the Kentucky Derby is comprised of four rich qualifiers at Oaklawn Park, all taking place during the year of the Derby. The series culminates with the Arkansas Derby (G1), which has churned out Kentucky Derby heroes Smarty Jones (2004), Super Saver (2010), American Pharoah (2015), and Country House (2019) since the turn of the century.

Year after year, Arkansas is a proving ground for some of the best sophomores in training, even if they don't snatch victory in the Derby. Champions and/or classic winners Creator, Lookin At Lucky, Curlin, Lawyer Ron, Afleet Alex have all competed in Oaklawn's Derby preps since 2005, stamping Oaklawn's series as one of the most productive on the Derby trail.

Rating: 4


Over the last decade, no state has produced more Kentucky Derby winners than California, which hosts between seven and eight preps at Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Golden Gate Fields, and (occasionally) Del Mar. During the 10-year span from 2012 and 2021, Derby champs I'll Have Another (2012), California Chrome (2014), American Pharoah (2015), Nyquist (2016), Justify (2018), Authentic (2020), and Medina Spirit (2021, status under dispute) all contested at least one prep race in California. More specifically, they all started at Santa Anita, and all but American Pharoah and Nyquist contested the Santa Anita Derby (G1).

Quality typically runs deep in California, and it's not uncommon to see California's sophomores ship across the country to win qualifiers in other states. The takeaway? California is the first place to look when searching for Kentucky Derby contenders.

Rating: 5


Derby contenders arriving by way of Dubai are far from uncommon; since 2000, 15 horses have used the UAE Derby (G2) as a springboard to Churchill Downs. But none of the 15 managed to crack the Kentucky Derby superfecta, even though the group included such talented runners as two-time Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Thunder Snow and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) champ Mendelssohn.

Rating: 1


So far, there hasn't been a lot of interest from European horsemen in using the European Road to the Kentucky Derby as a springboard to Churchill Downs. Since the seven qualifying races take place on turf and synthetic rather than dirt, the European Road to the Kentucky Derby is more likely to produce contenders for the European classics than the Triple Crown.

Rating: 1


Since the turn of the century, only Florida has been able to compete against California as a frequent source of Kentucky Derby winners. The Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park has produced Kentucky Derby winners Monarchos (2001), Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Orb (2013), Nyquist (2016), and Always Dreaming (2017), while the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) at Tampa Bay Downs has contributed Street Sense (2007) and Super Saver (2010).

All told, Florida's five preps at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs have produced eight Derby winners since 2000, an impressive string of success. However, there's a chance the continued rise of Arkansas and Louisiana will weaken Florida's impact during the 2020s—we're already seeing a shift with the formidable stable of Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox favoring Arkansas and Louisiana over Florida.

Rating: 4


Spanning seven to eight races at three different tracks from September through April, Kentucky's path to the Derby covers a lot of territory. In fact, it's hard to pin down the definition of a "Kentucky-based Derby contender," because many horses combine a stop or two in Kentucky with prep runs in other states. For example, the Florida-to-Kentucky route is a common path for Derby contenders to employ during the winter and spring.

But in any case, Kentucky has surprisingly struggled to toss up Derby winners in recent years. The last Run for the Roses champ to start in one of Kentucky's winter or spring preps was Animal Kingdom (2011), who won the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) back when it was a Grade 2 known as the Spiral Stakes. Furthermore, Keeneland's historic Blue Grass S. (G2) has produced only one Derby champion (Street Sense, 2007) in the last 25 years.

Rating: 3


There are a couple of ways to view Louisiana's path to the Kentucky Derby, which is expanding from three to four qualifiers (all at Fair Grounds) this season. You could take a skeptical view and point out how the series culminates with the Louisiana Derby (G2), and only two horses—Black Gold in 1924 and Grindstone in 1996—have ever completed the Louisiana Derby/Kentucky Derby double.

On the other hand, you could point out how War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), and Country House (2019) have all used the Fair Grounds qualifiers as springboards to Derby glory in the last 20 years. Furthermore, the Louisiana Derby has produced seven Kentucky Derby trifecta finishers since 2011, so it's safe to say the series is getting stronger. With high-profile trainers Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox focusing on Fair Grounds each winter, there's a chance we'll see Fair Grounds produce multiple Kentucky Derby winners during the 2020s.

Rating: 3

New York

New York has long been the epicenter of elite racing in the United States, so you might be surprised to know the five Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races held annually at Aqueduct haven't been especially productive in recent years.

To put it simply, the last Kentucky Derby winner to start in one of the New York qualifiers was Funny Cide (2003), runner-up in the Wood Memorial (G2). Meanwhile, the Remsen S. (G2) hasn't produced a Derby champ since Thunder Gulch in 1995, and the only Gotham S. (G3) starter to win the Derby was Secretariat back in 1973.

Historically, the Wood Memorial was a key steppingstone toward the Derby, producing 20 winners between 1930 and 2003. But many of those winners came when the Florida-to-New York route to the Derby was popular; nowadays, horses are more likely to compete exclusively in Florida or target the Blue Grass S. (G2) in Kentucky instead, leaving the Wood Memorial as a less productive qualifier.

Rating: 2


Although the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby has yet to produce a Derby winner, the four qualifying races take place on dirt, and Master Fencer used the series as a springboard to a solid sixth-place finish in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

Riding the momentum of Japan's first two Breeders' Cup wins last month, I wouldn't be surprised to see a top-tier Japanese dirt star take aim at the 2022 Kentucky Derby, opening the door for an upset victory. The quality of racing in Japan is high, and U.S. dirt bloodlines are common. The only concern is the fact international challengers across the board haven't enjoyed the best luck in the Kentucky Derby; the last Derby winner based outside of North America was Canonero II in 1971.

Rating: 2

Now it's your turn! Which region do you believe is most likely to produce the 2022 Kentucky Derby winner?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite.

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