The Road to the Kentucky Derby begins and ends at Churchill Downs. A journey that concludes with fanfare on the first Saturday quietly begins with the 1 1⁄16-mile Iroquois Stakes (G3) the previous September.
Named in honor of the great racehorse Iroquois, the first America-bred winner of England’s historic Epsom Derby, the Iroquois Stakes was inaugurated in 1982. Held for many years in late October or early November, the race frequently fell on the same weekend as the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, limiting participation from the best two-year-old Thoroughbreds in North America.
Instead of attracting Breeders’ Cup contenders, the Iroquois was often won by late-maturing colts such as Harlan’s Holiday (2001) and The Cliff’s Edge (2003), future Grade 1 winners and Kentucky Derby starters who did their best running at age three or four.
In 2013, Churchill Downs shifted the Iroquois Stakes to mid-September and lengthened the race from one mile to 1 1⁄16 miles, allowing promising youngsters aiming for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) to use the Iroquois as a prep race. This connection was formalized with the addition of the Iroquois Stakes to the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, guaranteeing the Iroquois winner a fees-paid berth to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
At the same time, the Iroquois was established as the kickoff leg on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, offering 17 Derby qualification points to the top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 basis.
With a Breeders’ Cup berth and Kentucky Derby qualification points sweetening the pot, the quality of the Iroquois Stakes has steadily risen. Since 2013, the race has consistently produced Kentucky Derby starters. Among the most notable has been Lookin At Lee, who parlayed a runner-up effort in the 2016 Iroquois into an identical finish in the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
The Iroquois has been a regular target for promising colts conditioned by Dale Romans, trainer of Kentucky Derby third-place finishers Paddy O’Prado and Dullahan. After sending out Cleburne and Smart Cover to run 1-2 in 2013 (ahead of future Kentucky Derby starters Tapiture and Ride On Curlin), Romans enjoyed further success with Not This Time (2016) and Dennis’ Moment (2019). The latter colt completed 1 1⁄16 miles in a quick 1:43.58, establishing the stakes record.
By J. Keeler Johnson
Major General kicked off the 2022 Road to the Kentucky Derby series with a brave victory in the Iroquois (G3) at Churchill Downs on Sept. 18.
Starting as second choice, Major General settled sixth on the outside for Javier Castellano before making a sweeping move around the final turn. He hit the lead at the top of the stretch and outgunned favorite Stellar Tap before holding off a wall of challengers.
Major General held off Tough to Tame by a neck to earn 10 points. Tough to Tame earned four points, with Red Knobs earning two for finishing third and Bourbon Heist taking the single point for his fourth-place finish.
From the Todd Pletcher stable, Major General is by Constitution, sire of 2020 Derby runner-up Tiz the Law, out of the Uncle Mo mare No Mo Lemons, who hails from the family of 1998 Ashland (G1) winner Well Chosen. Major General entered the race having won his only previous outing at Saratoga.
Bred by Circular Road Breeders, Major General sold for $265,000 as a short yearling at the Keeneland January sale before returning to Keeneland to be sold for $420,000 at the September Yearling Sale. He is raced by WinStar Farm and Siena Farm.
By Alastair Bull
|8||Major General 9-2||$11.80||$6.60||$4.80|
|1||Tough to Tame 37-1||$23.40||$11.60|
|7||Red Knobs 29-1||$9.00|
|11||Bourbon Heist 10-1|