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Kentucky Derby Preview: Essential Quality Aims to Stay Perfect
Essential Quality winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (Credit: Coady Photography)

Kentucky Derby Preview: Essential Quality Aims to Stay Perfect

LOUISVILLE, KY – Doesn’t it feel nice getting back to normal? While race officials did the best they could under enormous scrutiny last year, the Kentucky Derby (G1) isn’t the same when it’s not on the first Saturday in May, but we’re back on schedule in 2021!

The major storyline for the 147th Kentucky Derby is whether the undefeated Essential Quality will become the third horse to ever win this race and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). There is no question this will be his biggest challenge, though, as a full field of 19 challengers is ready to take him down.

The Kentucky Derby will go off as the 12th race on Saturday and has a post time of 6:57 PM ET.

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Other than the race itself, every horse’s human connections experience the most anxious moment of the week during the post position draw. Luckily for Essential Quality, he drew post 14, which should be ok for him.

Regular jockey Luis Saez will be aboard once again and has been working the horse in the mornings leading up to the race. A winner in all 5 starts thus far (4 of which came in stakes), Essential Quality is the 2/1 morning line favorite.

The second choice on the morning line is Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Rock Your World, who shipped in from California earlier this week. The undefeated colt has looked flawless in 3 starts, though only 1 of those came on dirt; his first 2 starts were turf wins.

Joel Rosario has the mount on the colt who drew post position 15.

Another California shipper coming to Churchill Downs with a strong recent victory is Hot Rod Charlie, who won the Louisiana Derby (G2) in gate-to-wire fashion last time out. The son of Oxbow (standing at Calumet Farm) has continued blossoming since finishing second to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

He drew post 9 and will have new jockey Flavien Prat aboard.

The full field for the Kentucky Derby, from the rail out: Known Agenda, Like the King, Brooklyn Strong, Keepmeinmind, Sainthood, O Besos, Mandaloun, Medina Spirit, Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon, Dynamic One, Helium, Hidden Stash, Essential Quality, Rock Your World, King Fury, Highly Motivated, Super Stock, Soup and Sandwich, and Bourbonic.

Top Choice

#14 Essential Quality – It’s hard to find a flaw with this undefeated Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner who successfully carried that form into 2021. Trainer Brad Cox often wins big races and this colt has won on both dry and sloppy tracks. He’s also won in many different ways: setting the pace, stalking the pace, and coming from mid-pack. That versatility is perhaps his biggest attribute heading into a race where things famously don’t go according to plan for just about everyone entered. The only downside is that he’s never earned an impressive speed figure; however, Cox is the master of getting his horses to give their best efforts on the biggest days. Count on this horse showing up with a solid effort.

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#15 Rock Your World – Was his Santa Anita Derby (G1) blowout a fluke performance, or was that effort a sign that he’s ready to dominate this field? That’s perhaps the biggest question of the entire Kentucky Derby. His final prep was the most impressive of them all; however, that is the only meaningful data point we have on him heading into this test; his other 2 starts were on turf against lesser company. He’s a hit-or-miss prospect, no question about it, but he showed in his only dirt start that he has the talen to win a race of this caliber.

#9 Hot Rod Charlie – He has the right running style for this race and his Louisiana Derby (G2) came at a longer distance than any one else’s in the field. Those factors make him dangerous for trainer Doug O’Neill, who’s won the Kentucky Derby twice before. The only strange situation is the fact that his Louisiana Derby rider Joel Rosario didn’t commit to the horse; Flavien Prat picked up the mount. That’s not a knock on Prat, who’s a fantastic rider, but more of a head-scratcher as to why Rosario didn’t choose Hot Rod Charlie.

#8 Medina Spirit – When looking at this horse, the word “solid” is the first thing that comes to mind. He’s never been worse than second in 5 starts while facing better competition than anyone else in the crop. His early speed is a major plus, and having Bob Baffert on your side never seems to hurt your chances, either. Look for him to be ridden for speed right out of the gate so that he can set the early pace.

#10 Midnight Bourbon – One of the most consistent horses in training, he’s never missed the board in 7 starts despite running against some of the best competition in the crop. It’s weird to say out loud, but the best way to describe him is he is just sort of “there” each time he runs. He possesses solid early speed, the ability to carry that speed over a route of ground, and he’s proven to be tough to pass.

Exotic Plays

#17 Highly Motivated – He took a giant step forward last time out in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2), his first effort around two turns. His progression for trainer Chad Brown reminds me a lot of Good Magic, another Brown trainee who finished second in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Can Highly Motivated do the same? There’s no reason to believe that he can’t, especially since he should improve in his second start going two turns.

#16 King Fury – It’s nice to see him make the gate after his dominating Lexington Stakes (G3) victory in his only start of the year, which put him on the Kentucky Derby bubble. Enough defections enabled him to make the race, and while his come-from-behind running style might give him problems, you can at least expect to see him pick off tired horses late. With the right trip, he can hit the board here at a price.

#1 Known Agenda – Trainer Todd Pletcher has four Derby runners this year, but Known Agenda seems like his only serious contender. After struggling with consistency earlier in his career, he added blinkers 2 starts back, and that seems to have made all the difference. After dominating allowance foes, the colt stepped up in a big way to win the Florida Derby (G1) with a powerful run down the stretch. He still needs to improve a bit from a speed figure standpoint, but the added distance helps his cause.

Party Crashers

#7 Mandaloun – This is the mystery horse in the race. Before the Louisiana Derby (G2), he was becoming one of the top choices for the Kentucky Derby, but he was a complete no-show in that event. So much so that many tossed him out completely, but his recent workouts over the Churchill Downs surface indicate that his Fair Grounds non-effort was a fluke. He’s an all-or-nothing type of play, so keep that in mind and don’t put yourself in a position where he has to run the race of his life for you to cash any tickets.

#18 Super Stock – Is there a chance this horse is just getting good at the right time? The upset winner of the Arkansas Derby (G1) put up a monster effort in that contest and could do it again here, especially with a pedigree that favors distance. He also has a pretty solid running style for this race, giving more reason for optimism. With a clean trip, he could do some damage at a big price.

Throw Outs

#19 Soup and Sandwich – He’s shown ability in a short amount of time and has more room to grow and improve, but this might be too much too soon for him, which is the big worry. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach for now.

#6 O Besos – This horse is getting all the hype leading up to the Derby, and for good reason: he’s got a feel-good story, he’s supposedly working out incredibly (who isn’t?), and he closes with a fury. However, his resume is lacking and his speed figures still seem to be a cut below the best in this crop. I’m not buying the hype.

#12 Helium – It’s hard to get a read on him with only 1 prep race under his belt (also his first dirt effort) when he took home March’s Tampa Bay Derby (G2). The speed figures from that race were low, but he should improve off of that effort here – I just wish they’d put 1 more start in him.

#2 Like the King – The Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) winner has proven to be consistent; however, his form on dirt leaves a lot to be desired. It’s hard to see him running a race on dirt that is good enough to compete with this group.

#20 Bourbonic – It’s amazing that this horse was able to pull off a 72/1 upset in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) for Pletcher. That was the race of his life, but it still wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of this group. He’ll need to greatly improve off of that effort to have a shot here.

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#11 Dynamic One – This guy was a tough-luck loser last time out in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2), narrowly finishing second to stablemate Bourbonic. The problem is, if he couldn’t hold off Bourbonic, then how is he going to win this contest?

#5 Sainthood – The fourth Pletcher trainee definitely showed improvement last time out in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3), but that was on a synthetic surface. His pedigree is geared more towards synthetic or turf, which makes him hard to play here. Look to bet him down the road on a surface different than dirt.

#13 Hidden Stash – He had multiple chances to win prep races at Tampa Bay Downs but never finished the job. He was also no match for the top runners in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland. It’s tough to see much changing here.

#4 Keepmeinmind – One of the better horses in the crop last year, he hasn’t retuned to form as a 3-year-old. He’ll need to completely reverse his current slide to have any shot at making an impact in this race.

#3 Brooklyn Strong – This late entry will have to improve dramatically off of his Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) effort to have a chance here. Still, it’s nice that his small-time connections get to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby.

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