Close menu
2021 Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis & Picks
Credit: Coady Photography

2021 Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis & Picks

LOUISVILLE, KY – The crowd noise that creates a wall of sound engulfing Churchill Downs will return this year as the 20 thoroughbreds make their turn for home in America’s greatest race, the Kentucky Derby (G1).

The normalcy we’ve yearned for over the past year during a global pandemic will arrive with “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” returning to the First Saturday of May.

The Run for the Roses is pure Americana. 40,000 fans (about 25% of a normal Derby crowd) are expected to attend. The big hats will be back, mint juleps will flow, and seersucker suits and fedoras will grace the grandstand under the Twin Spires once again.

Kentucky Derby Picks

Inside Track to the 2021 Kentucky Derby

Subscribe to Racing Dudes Premium and receive our MONSTER wagering guide to the 2021 Kentucky Derby absolutely FREE!

I’m back to evaluate the best 3-year-old colts and geldings who, only 4 months into their sophomore campaigns, will try going a mile and 1/4 for the first time. As was the case for many years, injuries and defections have left the Derby field longing for depth as a watered-down group makes the gate.

Juvenile champion #14 Essential Quality (2/1 morning line), a strong favorite, will look to become only the third Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion to win the Derby. There may not be much to get in his way, but the trip in the famed 20-horse field and the pace of the race can always screw things up for even the likeliest of winners in Derby lore.

This year’s Pace Thesis goes as follows:

  1. Evaluating trends from the past 7 Derbies and how they influence the pace and outcome of this year’s Derby
  2. Breaking down the pace, the expected leaders, and how the field will fare against them
  3. Picking the winner and predicting who hits the board

I also have a special announcement at the end of this article, so without further adieu, let’s break down the 2021 Kentucky Derby with my 6th Annual Pace Thesis!

 Will Essential Quality win the Kentucky Derby after his win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year? (Photo Credit: Keeneland)

The Past Seven Derbies Set the Trend for 2021

Even if you don’t follow horse racing, you may have heard the saying, “Pace makes the race.” Pace, or how quickly a race goes early and how the race unfolds, is one of the four cornerstones of traditional horse racing handicapping to go along with Class, Speed, and Form.

The pace of the Kentucky Derby is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. When 20 horses break from the gate, anything can happen and change the race’s complexion in an instant. It’s one of the most chaotic scenes in sports. Anybody who tells you they know what’s going to happen is a liar. A horse’s chances can be squashed two steps out of the gate. Just ask Lookin at Lucky, Thunder Snow, Mendelssohn, Classic Empire, and many others before them.

After 5 years of writing this Kentucky Derby Pace Thesis (that won the Ron Rippey Media Handicapping Award in 2017), I have finally come to the realization fixating on predicting the fractions (how fast they run early) and labeling the pace as hot, moderate, or slow is no longer a valid approach to fully evaluating this great puzzle.

As a result of what we’ve seen over these past 7 Derbies, a more quantitative approach is now necessary. Gate to wire victories the past 2 years, preceded by 3 faster-paced wins with favorites still pulling away late, have shown us that it doesn’t really matter how fast these horses go early.

Since the Derby points era started in 2013, only proper route runners qualify for the Derby, and that’s made all the difference. It’s been said a million times in the past 8 years, “Sprinters aren’t getting in the Derby gate and making the pace fast!” That’s true, but it’s only half the story and, in retrospect, not even the most important effect of the points era.

More importantly, all of the horses making the gate are now proven around two turns, often meaning they’re more comfortable settling once they hit the Churchill Downs backside. After exerting energy and showing great speed to clear their 19 counterparts on the front-side and into the first turn, the leaders and front-runners are able to “turn it off,” reserving the energy needed to pull away in the stretch.

After Orb closed into the fastest-paced Derby (at the 1/2 and 3/4 mile point) of the Derby points era set by a run-off, first-time-blinkered Palice Malice (under jockey Mike Smith) in 2013, the Derby pace has been swift at times and moderate in other instances, but either way, the result has been the same: Horses on or close to the lead have won the Kentucky Derby.

  • California Chrome and American Pharoah sat off slow paces in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
  • In 2016, Nyquist sat off the fifth-fastest pace (at the 1/2 mile) in the the past 21 years to hold on late over a fast-charging Exaggerator, with Gun Runner holding on for third after attending the pace the whole time.
  • Always Dreaming would catch a wet-fast track and a moderate pace in 2017 to sit off and pounce to win under jockey John Velazquez.
  • In 2018 and 2019, Justify (under Smith) and Maximum Security (Luis Saez) won in the slop attending or setting the pace. Along the way, they set the first- and fourth-fastest paces (at the 1/4 mile) in the past 21 years before crossing the finish line first in the Derby.
  • To follow up Maximum Security’s gate-to-wire trip to the finish first, Authentic (under Velazquez) used the same tactics after setting a fast pace to triumph last year in the seventh-fastest Derby ever .

So what does this all tell us? It says to look at the leaders first and handicap from there. If the early pacesetters are of high quality, then these are the horses to focus on in the win slot. Even slots in the superfecta can be filled by the leaders, the way the race has been run lately, so let’s take these trends into the 2021 Kentucky Derby!

 American Pharoah conquered the Derby over Firing Line and Dortmund in a slow-paced “merry-go-round” in 2015. Will this year be the same? (Photo Credit: Coach Photography)

2021 Derby Leaders & Pace Analysis

Among the tools available that lay out the pace of the race, the Brisnet Running Styles have served me well over the years, especially for plotting out the Derby. Here are the the Brisnet Running Styles for the 20 runners in the 147th Kentucky Derby:

The horses with Early running styles are #8 Medina Spirit (15/1) and #10 Midnight Bourbon (20/1). Both drew perfectly in the middle of the field and should have no issues gunning for the lead.

Hall of Famer Velazquez will be aboard Medina Spirit for 2-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert. This combo hooked up for a gate-to-wire victory last year with Authentic and it’s likely they use similar tactics here. Median Spirit out-broke #15 Rock Your World (5/1) in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) but was ridden out three-wide into the first turn by a longshot, while Rock Your World cut the corner and gained 2 lengths over Medina Spirit in a flash.

Medina Spirit is the likely early Derby leader, but Hall of Famer Mike Smith on Midnight Bourbon will be keeping him company early and often. Smith knows how to get a horse out of the Derby gate early (see Justify in 2018), so there is no doubt the Steve Asmussen charge will be forwardly-placed, especially as he’s looked eager to run in morning work-outs.

Rock Your World is an Early/Presser according to Brisnet, and he drew outside the two Early front-runners. 2013 Derby-winning jockey Joel Rosario will likely set up shop to their outside, where the key will be for Rosario to keep Rock Your World in the clear, as he’s never had to take dirt in a race. Trainer John Sadler may be sitting on a good one with this well-bred son of Candy Ride out of an Empire Maker mare.

These three are the likely leaders and the rest of the field will fall into place as follows, looking at the post positions:

#19 Soup and Sandwich (30/1) can show speed, as he did in his Florida Derby (G1) runner-up finish, but being drawn way outside will be to his detriment, as he may be caught wide going into the first turn.

#9 Hot Rod Charlie (8/1) won the Louisiana Derby (G2) on the lead, but he sat off the pace in his previous races. Jockey Flavien Prat may not want to throw down early with Medina Spirit to his immediate inside and Midnight Bourbon to his immediate outside. Hot Rod Charlie may find a cozy spot in the second flight for 2-time Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill.

#7 Mandaloun (15/1) is only labeled a Presser, but he’s rated with 7 speed points (0 being the slowest early and 8 being the fastest). The Brad Cox trainee will want to show early foot to get good position with not much early speed to his inside, but his race in the Louisiana Derby was just too bad to believe to strongly back him here. Horses coming into the Derby off bad starts usually don’t run well, so he will win without my money on him.

Favorite Essential Quality and #17 Highly Motivated (10/1) threw down early and often in a thrilling Blue Grass Stakes (G2) with Essential Quality winning by a neck. They had the speed to set the pace in that race, but will likely sit behind the top 5 or 6 horses in the Kentucky Derby. Both are extremely dangerous in the Derby if they get the right trip. 

Champion Essential Quality is the rightful favorite and has done nothing wrong for Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, who has his first Derby starters this year. Saez will need to get the right trip if he hopes to avenge his 2019 Derby disqualification aboard Maximum Security. Essential Quality is an extremely versatile horse that can make his own race

Three-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown will saddle Highly Motivated with the Hall of Famer Javier Castellano. Both trainer and jockey are looking for their first Derby wins. Highly Motivated’s Blue Grass proved he can go up against the top of the class:

Longshots #5 Sainthood and #12 Helium will make up the back-end of the first group, which is predicted to look like this going into the Clubhouse Turn:

2021 Derby Picks

If the trend of horses being on or near the lead winning the Derby continues, then these are the only horses we have to worry about this year. This is a bold statement, but most of the top choices are expected to be forwardly placed and I really don’t see a need to go through the rest of the field… instead, I’ll get to the point.

I invented a value named the Brisnet Derby Field Speed in previous renditions of this Pace Thesis. The 2021 Derby field has a very low value of 5.42, and with only one E8 horse entered, the Derby should have a slower pace. This will greatly benefit the horses in the front pack and set me up for my picks.

The expected leaders, Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon, have hit the board in all of their combined 12 lifetime starts. They’re both solid odds on the morning line with Hall of Fame connections, so they’re both must-uses in the superfecta to hold on for a piece and spice up the payouts.

The top two likely betting choices in the race, Essential Quality and Rock Your World, are the two horses most likely to hit the board and also must be used in the superfecta. They are the two horses to key in multi-race plays.

I can’t finish this Pace Thesis without making a pick. Since I think Rock Your World will get the jump on Essential Quality turning for home, I will pick Rock Your World to win the 147th Kentucky Derby.

 Rock Your World before his maiden win (Photo Credit: Ernie Belmonte)

The price will be right if Rock Your World stays somewhere around 9/2 or 5/1 odds, but Essential Quality will be bet down lower than 2/1 odds. I just can’t take that on any horse in the Derby, especially a horse in Essential Quality who struggled to win his last race and hasn’t looked amazing while working out for this race. I took those odds on Justify in 2018 because he looked like a complete beast, but I’m not willing to take them on Essential Quality.

I’ll be playing a $1 superfecta box 8, 10, 14, 15 for a total $24 bet and try to get Medina Spirit, Midnight Bourbon, Essential Quality, and Rock Your World in the number! I suggest you check out the Racing Dudes’ Inside Track to the Kentucky Derby Wagering Guide for more bets, tickets, and multi-race wagers. I wrote the first one in 2016 and it never disappoints!

Kentucky Derby Picks

Inside Track to the 2021 Kentucky Derby

Subscribe to Racing Dudes Premium and receive our MONSTER wagering guide to the 2021 Kentucky Derby absolutely FREE!

If I expand my superfecta ticket, the next horse on would likely be Highly Motivated, because it’s tough to use Essential Quality and not the horse that just finished a neck behind him. I’ve always liked #1 Known Agenda (6/1) for 2-time Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher, and he may find his way on the bottom of some of my superfecta tickets, too. The rail draw shouldn’t hurt him too bad and he’s the best of the horses in the mid-pack group. With Eclipse-winning jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard, he’ll be getting him going when it counts late to possibly hit the board.

Any horse can come running late to get fourth in the Derby, but I’ll keep it simple with just using the horses I mentioned above in this section and try to make a score.

Good luck to you all in the Derby! 


After 6 years of writing about horse racing, I am announcing my retirement from turf writing. It’s been a great ride and I’ve met people who will be friends for life.

First and foremost, I would like to thank the Racing Dudes, Aaron and Jared, for taking a chance on a random fan who asked them to write for their site in 2015. From Saratoga to Del Mar and everywhere in between, including two Derbies, we’re not done living it up just yet. Thank you for everything!

I gotta thank Magic for editing all my work and being a great friend, along with Mike Somich for all the multi-pick wisdom and friendship, too. Much thanks to the ultra-creative Ryan Stillman for being a great Dude and an even better friend. To all the other Racing Dudes team, including Ricky and Miranda, remember: I was the first writer for the site, so I am still The Godfather.

Thank you to everyone who helped me along the way, including Dan Tjordman, all the photographers I’ve worked with, and the barns who dealt with me bugging them on the Saratoga backside, including the Clement, Mott, Brown, Pletcher, Asmussen, and Casse teams. Obviously, thank you to the NYRA, Churchill Downs, and Breeders’ Cup press teams for allowing me to cover this great sport and for always welcoming me with open arms.

To all the turf writers and media whom I’ve had the privilege to sit next to in press rooms and stand next to on the rail of many tracks across this country, I thank you for your hard work and dedication to this sport, waking up early for workouts and leaving the track long after the last race ends. Your dedication helps keep this game going and too often goes unrecognized.

Lastly, I would like to thank all the readers who have reached out to me over the years to tell me that they like my work and may have even cashed a few nice tickets with me over the years. Your support will always be cherished. I have always done this to help educate the fans and try to grow the game.

I love this sport, which you all know, but right now I need to prioritize my career and family first. I’ll still be on Twitter @SaratogaSlim and I’ll still be at the track, where I hope to see you all soon!

Much Love,


Racing Dudes Team
Left to right: Ryan Stillman, Michael “Saratoga Slim” Spector, Curtis “Magic” Kalleward, Aaron Halterman, and Jared Welch

Join the Inner Circle

Sign up for exclusive 10% discount on orders, plus be the first to access our daily free and premium horse racing picks, articles, podcasts, and more!

Sign Up