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
|2||Sittin On Go 24-1||$50.00||$18.60||$9.00|
|8||Midnight Bourbon 5-1||$6.00||$4.00|
|3||Super Stock 8-1||$5.20|