Head to Head: Handicapping the 2021 Santa Anita Derby

Head to Head: Handicapping the 2021 Santa Anita Derby
Photo: Benoit Photo

Despite Life Is Good being sidelined, training stalwart Bob Baffert still sends out two runners in the 2021 edition of the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. A few more familiar faces from the Southern California preps return to duke it out again, while a few last out maiden winners throw their hat into the ring.

By all rights, this is Medina Spirit’s race to lose. However, rival Roman Centurian has proven to be a gritty competitor, and a few of these new shooters could be any kind, including a half-brother to multiple graded stakes winners.

Laurie Ross of Pedigree Power and Ashley Tamulonis of Coast To Coast sort out the contenders from the pretenders.



1. Roman Centurian

Roman Centurian hit a career-best Brisnet Speed Rating in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3). His run in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) was not as bad as it looked on paper. The son of Empire Maker made up about 10 lengths and went wide around the turn. The speed-favoring track does him no favors, but I expect this Simon Callaghan trainee to hit the exotics.

Roman Centurian has already had two encounters with Baffert-trained Medina Spirit. He gave everything he had in the Robert B. Lewis to come up a neck short but was then a very distant fourth behind Medina Spirit and the now-sidelined Life Is Good in the San Felipe. Maybe he moves up with some more pace to keep Medina Spirit honest. Contender.

2. Dream Shake

Dream Shake faced experienced graded types in only his second start and his first start around two turns. He fought with the gritty Medina Spirit down the stretch, giving way late. Peter Eurton’s charge breezed a second-to-last bullet five furlongs in company. He did it under his own power without being asked. Dream Shake, a son of Twirling Candy out of a half-sister to multiple graded handicap horse Synchrony, should handle the extra distance without a problem.

Peter Eurton sent Dream Shake to the San Felipe off a maiden win. He gave a good accounting of himself, finishing third after being outkicked for second by Medina Spirit. He will need to take another step forward, but he does come from a black type winning and producing female family and is a black type runner himself now. Use underneath again.

3. Rock Your World

Rock Your World was a little green in the stretch of the Pasadena Stakes, hesitating in the stretch before finding his best stride to pull away. He is undefeated in two turf starts, so naturally, the first thing that comes to mind is, “Hey, let’s try him in a weak Grade 1 on the dirt.” The son of Candy Ride out of multiple stakes-winning turf miler Charm the Maker is a long-striding colt, yet he has had to be pushed along in all of his works. He has a habit of lingering a little too long next to his less accomplished workmates before passing. The John Sadler trainee is bred to love classic distances, yet I do not think dirt is where he will display his top form. Rock Your World could hit the board just on talent if jockey Umberto Rispoli keeps him clear of kickback.

Rock Your World is perfect on the lawn for trainer John Sadler and will be making his dirt debut in an ambitious spot. Full sister She’s Our Charm was Grade 3-placed on the lawn going nine panels. Second dam Charm The Giant was also a graded stakes winner on the turf. Sadler gets 22-percent winners from the turf to dirt route, but I say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

4. Parnelli

Parnelli’s form decreased after his third start, and he was no factor in the Sham (G3) or Robert B. Lewis. Previously, he finished second by a neck to both Spielberg and Hot Rod Charlie before finding a field he could beat. John Shirreffs slaps a shiny new set of blinkers on Parnelli, but nine furlongs off the layoff is a tough assignment. 

Parnelli has faced this same group twice now, and both times he was double digit lengths behind the winners. They say third time’s the charm, but I suspect that will not apply here.

5. Back Ring Luck

Back Ring Luck handily beat maidens but was all out to beat optional claimers by a head at Oaklawn Park in his next start. The second-place finisher returned to place sixth next time out. Back Ring Luck was claimed out of the race for $62,500. By Malibu Moon out of a half-sister to champion 3-year-old filly Untapable, Back Ring Luck should have the class to step up. I need more convincing.


Back Ring Luck broke his maiden in claiming company to close out 2020 and returned a winner in 2021, beating an optional claiming field at 24-1 odds. This will be his first start for  Sadler, who is also sending out turf runner Rock Your World. Despite having no Derby preps, Back Ring Luck was a late nominee to the Triple Crown. This is a very ambitious placement, and I just do not think this gelding is ready for it.

6. Ottothelegend

Ottothelegend looked good graduating at Oaklawn, winning under a hand ride despite his jock sticking him in a box around the turn instead of going to the outside. The Steve Asmussen trainee handled it professionally. Ottothelegend’s half-brothers Twirling Candy, Ethnic Dance, and Dubai Sky are all graded winners. This colt has a bright future. However, the Santa Anita Derby is a big step up.

Asmussen ships in recent maiden winner Ottothelegend to take on a salty group of runners in the hopes of pulling the wool over Baffert’s eyes for once. While Ottothelegend clearly has talent and hails from a successful family, I do not think he is ready to take on Medina Spirit and win.

7. Medina Spirit

Who would have thought that the steadfast Medina Spirit would be Bob Baffert’s best hope for the Kentucky Derby? Medina Spirit has the pedigree to handle the extra distance. Seemingly, with stablemate Life is Good out of commission, it is Medina Spirit’s time to shine. On paper, his speed figures aren’t as flashy as some of the others, yet he’s a proven fighter. Baffert and jockey Johnny Velazquez team for 47-percent wins and 65-percent in the money in Grade 1 contests.

When Life Is Good is away, Medina Spirit will play. So far, the two races this son of Protonico has won were races in which Life Is Good was not in. This colt has put up consistent speed figures for Bob Baffert, though they have very slightly regressed in his last three outings, and will be the one to run down when the real running starts.

8. Law Professor

Law Professor graduated in his last start by 2 1/2 lengths under a hand ride. He was a little green around the turn and needed to be straightened out in the stretch. By Constitution out of a stakes-winning daughter of Ghostzapper, Law Professor should love the extra distance. He is worth a look for lower exotics.


Law Professor enters the Santa Anita Derby fresh off a maiden victory. His speed figure jumped tremendously from his debut to that second start. Like a few others in this field, this is an ambitious placing. This colt’s dam’s half-sister Celestine was a grade one winning turf miler. Third dam Hello Barbara Sue produced a graded turf router, but for the most part, the female line is best at around a mile. The Tapit line crossed with the Ghostzapper line does indicate routing should not be a problem.

9. The Great One

So far, the Great One is not living up to his name. To be fair, he has raced six times without a break and popped a couple of triple-digit speed figures seemingly from nowhere. The Doug O’Neill trainee’s breezes aren’t anything special.


The Great One finally broke his maiden in career start number five, rocketing away to a 14-length triumph. That effort produced a 101 speed figure, but he regressed greatly in the San Felipe, running fifth, beaten by 16 lengths, and earning just an 83 speed figure. Like Laurie indicated, O’Neill probably needs to back off this one for a while.

10. Defunded

Just when you think Baffert is all outta Triple Crown prospects, another one shows up. Recent graduate Defunded definitely shows promise. His last breeze was in company with the 7-year-old stakes-placed Leading Score, whose been out of action since 2019. Defunded kept pace and passed his older workmate while under a tight rein. The son of Dialed In is out of a multiple stakes-placed daughter of Touch Gold and hails from the same family as Code of Honor. Baffert is 33-percent with last-out maiden winners. Additionally, Baffert and Smith score with 36-percent wins and 64-percent in the money in Grade 1 contests.

Lawd! How many Derby hopefuls does Baffert have? Defunded debuted last August, managing to grab third despite being fractious. He didn’t pop up again until early March, when he broke his maiden going six furlongs. Baffert is now tossing Defunded into the deep end. Normally I would give a Baffert horse the benefit of the doubt, but I do not like that this will be his first time going around two turns, and against some talented and determined runners, to boot.

Final Thoughts

Laurie:  Eight of the last dozen Santa Anita Derby winners finished first through fourth in the San Felipe Stakes. One last-out maiden won, Midnight Interlude (2011), but he had three previous starts under his girth. Guess who trained him? Baffert. Mike Smith is shooting for his fourth straight victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

I really like Medina Spirit. Everyone who eyeballs him backs down. He does his best work on the lead, but he’ll likely have company. Jockey Tyler Baze will hustle Back Ring Luck out of the gate and try to grab the lead. The Great One and Parnelli also do their best work up front. The rest have tactical speed, except for Dream Shake and the slow to get going Roman Centurian.  

Defunded could be something special, yet going from six to nine furlongs is a tough assignment. Going back over a dozen years, every Santa Anita Derby winner had previously one race at a mile or further under their girth.

In no particular order, Roman Centurian, Rock Your World, and Law Professor have a shot at hitting the lower exotics.

Ashley: Medina Spirit finally gets his chance to shine. While not as flashy as his sidelined stable mate Life Is Good, Medina Spirit has been consistent and has proven to be a fighter. He likes to set the pace, but unfortunately for him, he is going to have company up front from the likes of Parnelli, Rock Your World, and Back Ring Luck. This could be good news for Roman Centurian. If the aforementioned trio push Median Spirit on the lead, they could soften him up for Roman Centurian to avenge his close loss in the Robert B. Lewis. The same goes for Dream Shake, but he will need to show a little more fight than he did in the San Felipe.












Meet Ashley Tamulonis

Despite growing up in a non-horse racing state, Ashley has been a fan of the sport since a young age. Her love for horse racing was fostered through the kids’ book series Thoroughbred by Joanna Campbell, which led her to educate herself on the ins and outs of the sport. Since becoming actively involved in the industry just a few years ago, Ashley has had the opportunity to meet many important players in the industry, attend the Eclipse Awards, see personal favorite Mucho Macho Man race twice in person, and befriend many of the fantastic fans and horsemen involved in the sport.

Ashley began her time with Horse Racing Nation covering racing in South Florida but also blogged about nationwide racing, industry issues and, from time to time, offered her opinion on how various changes could be beneficial to the industry. A move North to New Hampshire began both a new chapter in both Ashley's personal life and professional life. She currently pens the From Coast to Coast blog for HRN. Ashley also participates as a voter in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Polls.

An alumni of Macon State College, Ashley is from Central Georgia but is currently living in New Hampshire with her husband, Chris, and their two sons Charlie and Michael. A stay-at-home mom, Ashley juggles parenting with blogging and her other passions. Aside from horse racing, Ashley is a fervent football fan, enjoys reading and studying history, and hopes to someday author a historical work covering the Tudor period as well as biographies of horse racing’s stars, equine and human alike.

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