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Kentucky Derby Purse Increases to Record $5 Million

The 150th Kentucky Derby (G1) on Saturday, May 4, will be the richest in the classic’s history, with its purse raised from $3 million to $5 million in a Jan. 10 announcement from Churchill Downs.

“They put it up there where it belongs, huh?” commented four-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas. 

The purse now puts the Derby close to the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) as the richest race in North America.

“I think that the Breeders’ Cup Classic and that race should be the two largest races in the country,” noted Lukas, agreeing with the purse hike.

The increase to the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby for 3-year-olds highlights a record-setting, 50-race stakes schedule cumulatively worth $25.6 million for Churchill Downs‘ 2024 43-day spring meet from April 27-June 30.

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Prize money for the stakes schedule increased 25% or $5.1 million from last year’s $20.5 million lineup thanks to Churchill Downs Incorporated’s investment into historical horse racing, which supercharges funding for purses.

Prior to the debut of historical horse racing at CDI’s Derby City Gaming in September 2018, that year’s Spring Meet featured 32 stakes races worth $8.8 million. There are now 18 additional Spring Meet stakes, and prize money for horsemen in those events has grown 190% or by $16.8 million.

“These record purse increases are a symbol of the health of horse racing in Kentucky,” said Bill Carstanjen, CEO of Churchill Downs Incorporated. “Churchill Downs Incorporated’s over $1 billion investment into live and historical horse racing in Kentucky over the last five years has meaningfully strengthened the entire Kentucky Derby week and year-round racing program. It’s important to acknowledge the state legislature for its commitment to working closely with private enterprise in a truly collaborative partnership to support the continued growth of Kentucky’s signature industry.”

Thirty-eight of the 2024 Spring Meet stakes races received significant purse hikes, including $250,000 boosts to each of the following: the $1.5 million Kentucky Oaks (G1); $1 million La Troienne Stakes (G1); $1 million Churchill Downs Stakes (G1); $1 million Derby City Distaff (G1); and $750,000 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2T). Each of the track’s seven grade 1 events, including the Turf Classic Stakes (G1T) and Stephen Foster Stakes (G1), feature a minimum $1 million purse.

“I think it’s coming very strong in the right direction,” Lukas said of racing at Churchill Downs. “The purse structure is definitely the thing that always dictates whether the quality of the horses stay or leave or where they go for stakes. I think the purse structure is very very strong and the facility is constantly improving.

“There’s no reason in the world why it can’t be the No. 1 flagship track in America. Right in the heart of the horse country. You don’t have to look very far to find a horse farm.”

With a record $5 million in prize money now guaranteed for the Kentucky Derby, the winner will receive the event’s highly sought-after gold trophy, a $3.1 million payday and possibly millions more as a stallion after retirement from racing. Also, $1 million will be awarded to the runner-up, $500,000 to third, $250,000 to fourth and $150,000 to fifth.

Previously, the Kentucky Derby purse had been worth $3 million since 2019, and was $2 million from 2005-18 and $1 million from 1996-2004.

“It is truly gratifying to view the steady growth of the Churchill Downs racing product and the entire Kentucky horse racing and breeding industry, which bettors around the world have embraced,” said Churchill Downs racetrack president Mike Anderson. “Through the purses generated by the racing association and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, Kentucky horsemen and horsewomen are reaping the benefits of Churchill Downs Incorporated’s historic investment as we celebrate this year’s milestone 150th Kentucky Derby.”

Starlight Racing co-founder Jack Wolf praised the decision of Churchill Downs to raise the purse of the Derby, though the horse owner remains opposed to the track’s continued ban of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert from participating. Baffert was banned after his trainee Medina Spirit , owned by Zedan Racing Stables, tested positive for betamethasone after crossing the wire first in the 2021 race and later was disqualified. That disqualification is under appeal in the court system.

Downey: Medina Spirit Appeal Says Racing Regs Unconstitutional

Starlight Racing has participated in 14 runnings of the Derby, winning it twice in partnership with others, first with Triple Crown winner Justify   in 2018 and then in 2020 with Authentic  .

“Well, obviously the prestige is there. I think the only pressure for Churchill to increase it is from the standpoint of the public perception and criticism,” he said. “If they hadn’t raised it to $5 million, what are you going to do? Not enter the race?”

Kentucky Derby-participating owner Mike Repole said of the increase: “The Derby is the most prestigious and recognizable global race. The purse increase to $5 million helps validate that. This is a very positive change by Churchill Downs. I am confident that Churchill will continue to make positive changes for the sport.”

Lukas does not anticipate the purse increase will noticeably impact the field for the race, which, even before the Jan. 10 announcement, had regularly attracted close to a 20-horse field annually. He believes that when horsemen skip the Derby to point for a race such as the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes (G1), it is often for a reason other than the purse. The Belmont Stakes (G1), the final race of the Triple Crown, has jumped to $2 million this year.

“I can’t picture anybody that thought they could win the Derby ever skipping it. I don’t think they skip $5 million if they feel like they have a legitimate chance,” Lukas said. “Most of the time when that happens, there’s an underlying reason. Their horse is probably not at his peak. He’s not where he would like to be on that particular day. “

At $1.5 million, the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks—the Derby’s sister race staged one day prior on Friday, May 3—remains the nation’s most lucrative race for 3-year-old fillies. It had been worth $1.25 million since 2019, and was $1 million from 2011-18 and $500,000 from 1996-2010.

“That’s wonderful news. I wish I was young,” quipped Lukas, 88.

All told, there will be a record 22 stakes races cumulatively worth $17.5 million staged over Kentucky Derby week (April 27-May 7), including nine stakes totaling $10.8 million on Derby Day and seven totaling $5.3 million on Oaks Day.

Four races on Kentucky Derby week will offer horses an entry and travel incentive to run in some of Europe’s most prestigious races. The winner of the Turf Classic will receive a berth to either the one-mile Queen Anne Stakes (G1) or the 1 1/4-mile Prince of Wales’ Stakes (G1) at Royal Ascot in mid-June. Earlier on the Kentucky Derby day program, the winner of the Twin Spires Turf Sprint (G2T) will receive an entry to the King’s Charles III Stakes (G1) (formerly known as the King’s Stand), also staged at Royal Ascot. Three-year-old turf specialists in the American Turf Stakes (G2T) and Edgewood Stakes (G2T) can receive their entry to either the Derby (G1) or Oaks (G1) at Epsom Downs. The winner of the American Turf on Kentucky Derby Day will receive an entry and travel stipend to compete in the Derby while the winner of the Edgewood on Kentucky Oaks Day will receive the same benefits for the Oaks.

The first condition book of scheduled races is being finalized by vice president of racing Ben Huffman and is expected to be published in late January. More than $57 million in total prize money is expected to be offered during this year’s Spring Meet, pending Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund final approval. Purses for maiden races will be $120,000 while allowance races will range from $127,000 to $141,000.

Spring Meet stall applications are due Friday, March 1. Following its annual closure for wintertime renovations, the Churchill Downs stable area will reopen Tuesday, March 19. The first day of training on the main dirt track will be Friday, March 22.

For the second consecutive year, Churchill Downs Incorporated’s nearby Trackside Louisville, which accommodates more than 500 horses, has remained open year-round for wintertime stabling and training for racing at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.

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