Kentucky Derby 2021: The winning path for top contenders

Kentucky Derby 2021: The winning path for top contenders
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

With nearly all the big preps having been run, we now have a pretty good idea of the top contenders for the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Barring an upset in Saturday’s Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, these are the horses that I consider to be the top contenders on the first Saturday in May. How could each horse win the biggest race in their career? Read on to see how each can get the big job done.

[RELATED: Essential Quality is the clear Ky. Derby favorite – or is he?]

Concert Tour. Right now, I see him as the most likely one to be draped in roses after the Kentucky Derby is run, but unlike the other eight horses on this list, he still has a prep to be run. While there is always the chance of some sort of injury, I like the idea of a race only three weeks before the big one. I fully expect him to use his good speed to add the Arkansas Derby to his growing list of accomplishments. From there, it will be straight to Churchill Downs, where he will vie for favoritism with Essential Quality. In the Derby, look for him to use his strong tactical speed to be involved early. At the top of the stretch, he’ll need to prove his class and his ability to flourish at 10 furlongs. I believe he is the horse they all will have to beat in the homestretch of the world’s most popular horse race.

Essential Quality. The unbeaten champion showed his determination on Saturday with a drive that carried him by a stubborn foe in Highly Motivated. It was the type of performance you expect from a champion and one that sends him to Louisville as one of the horses to beat. He is a versatile sort who can win from different places early, but I believe his best chance to win the Derby will come from a forward position. If he falls well back as in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, I think it will be tough to navigate the 20-horse field to victory. Lying somewhere around sixth early will allow him to move on the turn and be right there as the field turns for home. From there, he will have every chance to prove he’s still tops in the division.

Hot Rod Charlie. That shocking run at odds of 94-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile no longer looks like a surprise. With two solid preps under his belt, he is using the same formula used by past Doug O’Neill Kentucky Derby winners I’ll Have Another and Nyquist. With plenty of experience from 2020, I expect him to run another good race on May 1. While he wired the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby (G2), I do not expect him right on the lead at Churchill Downs. Rather, a close-up stalking trip would be his path to victory. He already has proven he can pass horses. If he can get the first jump on the leaders, he could go all the way.

Known Agenda. The low-striding son of Curlin finally lived up to high expectations when winning the Florida Derby (G1) on March 27. He has run against nothing but good horses since his debut, so I like his experience and I believe he can go the distance. In the Sam F. Davis (G3), he fell too far back early and was doomed to failure without an explosive closing kick. It won’t be easy, but he’ll need to work out a trip similar to the one he did in the Florida Derby. Similar to Essential Quality, but I worry that he has less early speed than the Eclipse Award winner. He will need racing luck, but he’s certainly in with a chance.

Rock Your World. His striking win in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby was impressive. The undefeated and well-bred son of Candy Ride obviously has plenty of talent. But things will only get tougher for him in the Kentucky Derby. Short on experience, he will need to run even better to win the roses, and this time with more speed to pressure him early. Of the speed, I like Concert Tour better, but speed is always an advantage. If the other speed fails to break well, suddenly it is a big advantage. His best chance again will be to get on the lead and see how far he can go.

Greatest Honour. The Florida Derby was a disappointment, but his three nice wins before that should not be forgotten. Perhaps the competition is getting tougher, but I could see him bounce back with a better performance at Churchill Downs. To his advantage will be the distance. He’s as likely as anyone in the field to get better as the distances increase. As for winning the whole thing, I believe it will come down to pace. If the early pace is strong in this year’s Kentucky Derby, his chances of winning will go way up. In the back half early, he will need to make a big late run to win this one.

Highly Motivated. On one hand, he ran a big race in the Blue Grass. On the other hand, he had things his own way on a slow pace and still could not hold off the champ. Still, as a first try around two turns, it was a very good effort. I don’t see him as a natural speed horse, so perhaps he could be even better with horses in front of him early. He’ll need to break well and find racing room, but perhaps an early position similar to Essential Quality could produce a quick strike that puts him in great position at the top of the lane. He certainly is headed in the right direction.

Rebel’s Romance. Yes, I know, history is not on the side of UAE Derby winners. We also have not heard about a decision for him even coming over for the Kentucky Derby. Still, I really liked the way he finished off the win at Meydan, completely erasing his one lone defeat in Saudi Arabia. Odds are stacked against him, but I think he is very talented, in great hands and wants the distance. I see a successful trip for him being similar to that of Known Agenda – not too far out early, with clear sailing as they hit the stretch so that he can use his closing ability and fondness for the distance.

Medina Spirit. A well beaten runner-up in both the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1), he will need to improve on the first Saturday in May. I see that as possible still. Trained by Bob Baffert, he obviously will be prepared for the Derby. For him to win, though, he will need to be involved early and close to the lead throughout. If he can somehow forge to the lead on the turn, his stubbornness and ability to keep running could prove him a very difficult horse to pass in the stretch run.

Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to HRN, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing webcast HorseCenter, and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves on the Board of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars and is a Vox Populi committee member. He is a voter for racing's Hall of Fame, as well as a weekly NTRA poll voter. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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