Meet the Kentucky Derby 150 Contenders

Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
The Sporting Tribune's Kentucky Derby rankings. The "How did we get here?" edition.

LOUISVILLE — Man, how’d we get here?

Every year around this time, those of us who follow horse racing ask ourselves this very question. And what does it mean for the Kentucky Derby field?

Fandom of horse racing can be approached in a slew of different manners: you can be the daily player, who simply pops out of bed and is perfectly contented to bet Horseshoe Indianapolis and Zia Park on a Tuesday. To be fair, there are a bunch of those folks out there (reluctantly raises hand).

You can be someone who really zeroes in on Saturdays: it’s the day with the highest level races, with the most money in the pools. It makes sense that people would largely approach the sport in this way; this column will largely serve this fan.

Then there’s the super casual, who shows up for Derby. And God bless ya – you add money to those pools while only caring about names or saddle cloth colors or gray horses or the starting gate number. My wife is one of these, and she’s far more successful on a purely statistical basis than I am. “Pollo pico? Is that spicy chicken? Put money on that one.” Horse wins for fun, and she turns her $5 into $50. “I’m done now. How many more races are there?”

The Kentucky Derby starts in September. And no, not the 2020 September Derby that I attended with… almost no one. The “Road To The Kentucky Derby” starts with a race called the Iroquois Stakes, a one-mile dirt race at Churchill Downs for two year-olds. Win that one, and you get 10 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. The qualifying races then start road-tripping around the globe, with races in Japan, the U.K., Ireland, France, and the UAE. Earlier races on the trail are generally worth fewer points than races closer to the Derby itself; this makes sense, as you’d like the starting gate at the Derby to be full of horses in the best form of their young careers.

If you’re wondering if you read that right, the answer is yes: the Derby trail starts eight months prior, in a one-turn race at Churchill Downs. The Derby is a bit like the NFL: short season, long build-up. Nothing quite like eight months of work for a two minute horse race.

So, with that in mind, we can say here with confidence: we mostly know who will be eligible for Kentucky Derby 150, this year’s rendition of the Run for the Roses. We have one remaining prep, the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, KY. It’s a diminished prep: given that it’s only three weeks prior to the Derby, it’s worth 20 points to the winner; this past Saturday, Sierra Leone was awarded 100 points for a win over the same track.

Let’s go through, tier by tier, where the different Kentucky Derby contenders sit. The horses are listed largely by the points they’ve accrued; I’ll get into my personal power rankings as we get closer to the First Saturday in May. There are 20 spots in the starting gate, and four “also eligible” slots, which are alternate starters in case one of the top 20 cannot race.


1. Sierra Leone. Trainer: Chad Brown. Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione.
Sierra Leone won the Blue Grass Stakes, a Grade 1 prep race at Keeneland. Prior to that, he won the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fairgrounds. He’s atop the leaderboard, and an absolute top contender to win the Derby.

2. Fierceness. Trainer: Todd Pletcher. Jockey: John Velazquez.
Fierceness won both the Grade 1 Breeder’s Cup Juvenile – the top race in North America for two year-olds – and the Florida Derby, the best predictor for success in the Derby. He’s a major contender, and has the same core group (trainer, owner, etc.) that trained Derby favorite Forte last year, before he was scratched the morning of the Derby.

3. Catching Freedom. Trainer: Brad Cox. Jockey: Flavien Prat.
Catching Freedom won the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby after finishing a decent third behind Sierra Leone in the Risen Star. Brad Cox is a Louisville-native, and regarded by many as the best trainer based east of the Rockies.

4. Stronghold. Trainer: Phil D’Amato. Jockey: Antonio Fresu.
Stronghold won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, another of the best predictors for the Kentucky Derby. With Bob Baffert trainees unable to run in the Derby, Stronghold will represent the SoCal horse racing scene in this year’s edition. Jockey Antonio Fresu, a native of Italy, is on the cusp of joining the top jocks in North America.

5. Resilience. Trainer: Bill Mott. Jockey: John Velazquez.
Resilience won the Grade 2 Wood Memorial, the top Derby prep in New York. Trainer Bill Mott won the Derby in 2016 with Country House, the beneficiary of the most famous DQ in racing history.

6. Forever Young. Trainer: Yoshito Yahagi. Jockey: Ryusei Sakai.
Forever Young won the Grade 2 UAE Derby, a prep race that has yet to give us a great showing in the Kentucky Derby. Those who watch horse racing closely, however, think a Japanese-based horse will win a Derby sooner rather than later.

7. Endlessly. Trainer: Mike McCarthy. Jockey: Umberto Rispoli.
Endlessly won the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks (yes, STEAKS), the most controversial of the Derby preps. The race is run at Turfway Park in Covington, KY, on a synthetic surface. Trainer Mike McCarthy thinks he’s a turf horse in the future; his ownership appears to want to try the Derby. Last year, Two Phil’s ran a solid second in the Derby after winning the Ruby; Rich Strike, who famously won at 80-1 in the 2022 Derby, also exited the Ruby.

8. Dornoch. Trainer: Danny Gargan. Jockey: Luis Saez.
Dornoch won both the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, FL, and the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct in NYC. We’ll revisit that Remsen Stakes in a future article. He is a full brother to last year’s Derby winner, Mage.

9. Just a Touch. Trainer: Brad Cox. Jockey: Florent Geroux.
Just a Touch gained his points by running second in both the Blue Grass and Gotham Stakes. Last year’s winner, Mage, was a second-place finisher in the Florida Derby. The connections of Just a Touch have had serious high hopes for this young colt since he began training.

10. Track Phantom. Trainer: Steve Asmussen. Jockey: Joel Rosario.
Track Phantom is amongst the most experienced horses in this year’s crop, having run seven times coming into the Derby. He won two prep races at the Fairgrounds in NOLA, and recently ran second and fourth in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, respectively.

11. West Saratoga. Trainer: Larry Demeritte. Jockey: Jesús Castanon.
West Saratoga would become a true rarity: he won the aforementioned Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs back in September; he would be a rare example of a colt who wins a high-level stakes that early in their two year-old campaign and parlay it into a Kentucky Derby win. Trainer Larry Demeritte is a cult favorite in horse racing circles: a Jamaica native, he keeps a small operation.

12. Just Steel. Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas. Jockey: Keith Asmussen.
Just Steel has run second twice in graded stakes: most recently in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, and in the Southwest Stakes in February. Both of those races are run at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, AR. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, “The Coach,” has won the Derby four times.

13. Honor Marie. Trainer: Whit Beckman. Jockey: Ben Curtis.
Honor Marie won the KY Jockey Club, a major two year-old race at Churchill Downs. He recently ran second in the Louisiana Derby to secure his spot in the starting gate.

14. Domestic Product. Trainer: Chad Brown. Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione.
Domestic Product won the Tampa Bay Derby, a second-tier prep. He finished second in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park before that. Jockey Tyler Gaffalione told me after the Blue Grass that he will wait on Trainer Chad Brown for instructions on whom his mount will be on Derby day, be it Sierra Leone or Domestic Product. The Tampa Bay Derby has produced three winners of the Derby all-time.

15. Catalytic. Trainer: Saffie Joseph, Jr. Jockey: Julien Leparoux.
Catalytic ran a respectable second in the Florida Derby behind top contender Fierceness. As mentioned above, the Florida Derby is a terrific predictor of success in the KY Derby; last year’s winner, Mage, ran second in the Florida Derby.

16. Deterministic. Trainer: Christophe Clement. Jockey: Joel Rosario.
Deterministic won the one-turn Gotham Stakes to qualify for the Derby. He recently ran a disappointing 8th in the two-turn Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

17. Society Man. Trainer: Danny Gargan. Jockey: Luis Rivera.
Society Man qualified for the starting gate by running second in the Wood Memorial in NYC. The Wood Memorial last produced a Derby winner in 2000 with Fusaichi Pegasus.

18. Mystik Dan. Trainer: Kenny McPeek. Jockey: Brian Hernandez, Jr.
Mystik Dan won the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, before finishing third in the Arkansas Derby over the same track. He won impressively in the slop in the Southwest Stakes; if it rains on Derby Day, which it commonly does, he might be a must-include in your wagers.

19. T O Password. Trainer: Daisuke Takayanagi. Jockey: Katsuma Sameshima.
T O Password qualified by winning the Fukuryu Stakes, a win-and-in on the Japanese road to the Derby. He’s likely the least known starter in the Derby starting gate.


I’m sure you’ve done the math, so here we are: the final spot in the 20 horse starting gate. Here are the candidates for the 20th spot, plus those on the “also eligible” list.

20. No More Time. Trainer: Jose D’Angelo. Jockey: Javier Castellano.
No More Time is in – currently. He has 45 points, good enough for the 20th spot. He won the Sam F. Davis, a minor prep, before finishing second in the Tampa Bay Derby. Only one horse can pass him in the standings with a win in the Lexington this Saturday.

21. Hades. Trainer: Joe Orseno. Jockey: Jose Ortiz.
Hades won the Holy Bull, a February prep at Gulfstream Park. This race stands out, as he dominated a race in which top contender Fierceness was making his 2024 debut. He followed it up with a disappointing 5th place finish in the Florida Derby; the two week turnaround shows their desire to make the Derby field. He must win the Lexington to qualify for the Derby; two weeks is a quick turnaround for young horses in the modern era.

22. Encino. Trainer: Brad Cox. Jockey: Florent Geroux.
Encino scratched out (was pulled from running) of the Blue Grass Stakes this past Saturday, as he drew the outside post and trainer Brad Cox thought this was an easier spot for him to go in the Lexington. Well, he’s right, but it also hurts his chances to be in the Derby. With a win, he moves to 40 points, and likely the first alternate for the Derby. In recent years, numerous Also Eligible horses have drawn into the field.

23. Liberal Arts. Trainer: Robert Medina. Jockey: Irad Ortiz, Jr.
Liberal Arts ran a disappointing 8th in the Arkansas Derby, after a third place finish in the Southwest Stakes a few weeks prior at Oaklawn Park. With a win in the Lexington, he can move to 39 points, or good enough for spot 22. This gives him a serious shot to land in the starting gate, should he win on Saturday.


24. Grand Mo the First. Trainer: Victor Barboza, Jr. Jockey: Emisael Jaramillo.
GMTF has been a steady competitor, finishing third in both the Florida Derby and Tampa Bay Derby. He’s first on the AE list, currently, and will likely make the trip to Churchill in case of scratches.

25. Common Defense. Trainer: Kenny McPeek. Brain Hernandez, Jr.
Common Defense has picked up points in various races, but hasn’t won a race outside of a maiden win in January. He’s currently second on the AE list, and would be a Rich Strike type of winner.

26. Epic Ride. Trainer: John Ennis. Jockey: Adam Beschizza.
Epic Ride is trained by Irishman John Ennis, and has done all of his best running at Turfway Park. He finished a solid third in the Blue Grass.

27. Uncle Heavy. Trainer: Robert Reid, Jr. Jockey: Mychel Sanchez.
Uncle Heavy won the Withers at Aqueduct in February; if I had to guess, he’ll be pointed to the Preakness. Reid is a Mid-Atlantic-based trainer.

28. El Grande O. Trainer: Linda Rice. Jockey: Kendrick Carmouche.
Trainer Linda Rice would be the first female trainer with a starter in the Derby since 2021; my sense is she’ll hold out El Grande O for either the Preakness or races in New York State.

29. Seize the Grey. Trainer: D. Wayne Lukas. Jockey: Nik Jaurez.
Seize the Grey is trained by four time Derby winner Lukas, and finished third in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. Rich Strike finished third in the Ruby in 2022, and went on to win the Derby from the Also Eligible list. Could we get a repeat?

Next up is the aforementioned Lexington Stakes, to be run this Saturday at Keeneland. Again, the scenarios are pretty simple:
If Hades wins, he’s in. No More Time would slide to the also eligibles.
In Encino wins, he’s a first also eligible. Likely in the field.
Liberal Arts moves firmly into a good also eligible spot if he wins.
If any other horse wins the Lexington, No More Time stays in the field, and Grand Mo The First stays atop the also eligibles.

We’ll preview the Lexington in a piece later this week, along with the other two stakes at Keeneland. We’ll try to get together a multi-race wager, as well, to make the races financially interesting, too.