Kentucky Derby 2021: Early analysis for 20 expected starters

Kentucky Derby 2021: Early analysis for 20 expected starters
Photo: Joan Fairman Kanes/Eclipse Sportswire

The road to the 2021 Kentucky Derby, which returned to its typical schedule, included 35 qualifying races that were run between Sept. 5, 2020. and April 10, 2021.

During the points era, the Derby results have become remarkably consistent. The favorite has been a significant factor in the finish of the race, with the winner usually racing as part of the early pace. Every horse to cross the finish line first has had a victory in one of the 100-point qualifying races and, except for last year’s extended Derby trail, was unbeaten during his 3-year-old campaign. Occasionally, a long shot has broken into the exacta, trifecta or superfecta.

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Every year there is talk of needing 40 points to get into the Derby, but then the defections pour in. As it stands, the last horse to make the field has only 20 points.

The projected field, as it currently stands, has 20 horses that are listed below in order of total Derby qualifying points earned. This list includes the Horse Racing Nation morning line odds for each runner, the number of qualifying points, their most recent race result with Beyer Speed Figure, and possible jockey assignment.

Essential Quality (5-2 – 140 - 1st Blue Grass (G2), 97 – Tapit – Luis Saez / Brad Cox – 5: 5-0-0 - $2,265,144) Essential Quality checks all of the boxes of a potential Kentucky Derby winner – undefeated with a victory in a 100-point race and races close to the pace. He won his debut race at Churchill Downs and will race from his own stall. Yet he does not come with the buzz of recent speedy Bob Baffert runners. Some experts believe the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance might be too much for a horse with a paddling left front leg. On top of those questions, trainer Brad Cox has never had a Kentucky Derby starter. A worthy Derby favorite.

Hot Rod Charlie (10-1 – 110 – 1st Louisiana Derby (G2), 99 – Oxbow - Flavien Prat / Doug O’Neill - 7: 2-1-1 - $1,005,700) With his Louisiana Derby victory, Hot Rod Charlie lived up to the promise he flashed as a 2-year-old when he ran second as a long shot in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). He used his speed to convincingly win that 100-point qualifier, which was run at 1 3/16 mile. Thus, Hot Rod Charlie is a winner at a distance longer than any other horse in the field. Trainer Doug O’Neill is a two-time Derby winner with I’ll Have Another and Nyquist. Win contender.

Super Stock (30-1 – 109 – 1st Arkansas Derby (G1), 92 – Dialed In - Ricardo Santana Jr. / Steve Asmussen - 8: 2-2-2 - $804,762) Super Stock got a perfect trip in his Arkansas Derby victory when he saved ground in the early going as he tracked a fast pace. He swung outside and ran by the five other competitors to win easily. No horse gets a trip like that in the 20-horse field of the Kentucky Derby. Owned in part by trainer Steve Asmussen’s father, he is a feel-good horse for the Hall of Famer trainer who has a 0-for-21 record in the Run for the Roses. Toss.

Like the King (50-1 – 104 – 1st Jeff Ruby (G3), 86 - Palace Malice - Drayden Van Dyke / Wesley Ward - 6: 3-2-1 - $200,680) This Wesley Ward runner began his career at Belterra Park, where he broke his maiden in his second start. It was on the Tapeta surface at Turfway Park that he found his own with two wins and a second. Yes, Animal Kingdom did win the Kentucky Derby after a win on an artificial surface at Turfway, and it seems that Like the King has been better than expected for Ward. It might also be a surprise to know that this will be Ward’s first Derby runner. Speed figures lag behind most of the field. Toss.

Known Agenda (8-1 – 102 – 1st Florida Derby (G1), 94 - Curlin - Irad Ortiz Jr. / Todd Pletcher - 6: 3-1-1 - $467,100) Known Agenda leads the four Todd Pletcher horses that are set to run on the first Saturday in May as he looks to win his third Derby. Known Agenda will try to take the same path to victory that Always Dreaming used in 2017, with wins at Gulfstream Park in an allowance followed by the Florida Derby before heading to Churchill Downs. There is no question that this son of Curlin is an improving 3-year-old and that his stalking running style will serve him well in the 10-furlong test. Win contender.

Rock Your World (9-2 – 100 – 1st Santa Anita Derby (G1), 100 - Candy Ride – Joel Rosario / John Sadler - 3: 3-0-0 - $546,600) Rock Your World led the Santa Anita Derby every step of the way as he made his first start on a dirt track after winning his first two on the turf. He’s 3-for-3 in his career, with all of them run as a 3-year-old, and he has a victory in a 100-point prep race. The son of Candy Ride also is the only horse in the field with a three-digit Beyer in his most recent start. This is a dangerous horse based on what it takes to be a successful Derby horse in today’s world of Thoroughbred racing, and he gets Joel Rosario in the saddle. Win contender.

Bourbonic (30-1 – 100 – 1st Wood Memorial (G2), 89 – Bernardini - Kendrick Carmouche / Todd Pletcher - 6: 3-1-0 - $465,880) Even trainer Todd Pletcher was surprised by Bourbonic’s victory in the Wood Memorial at odds of 72-1. He was in that race because owner Brad Kelley of Calumet Farm asked his trainer to give the horse a chance in a points race. All you have to do is ask your trainer and the next thing you know you’re on your way to the biggest race in America. The son of Bernardini did have two wins at Aqueduct during the winter, so maybe he should have been more like 30-1 in the Wood. The Wood was run slowly and he got a perfect trip. Toss.

Medina Spirit (15-1 – 74 –2nd Santa Anita Derby (G1), 94 - Protonico – John Velazquez / Bob Baffert - 6: 3-1-1 - $467,100) After all is said and done, Medina Spirit will be the lone Bob Baffert horse in the Derby field. No Life is Good, no Bezos, no Concert Tour – just this consistent son of Protonico who was second in the Santa Anita Derby. The large field and the extra distance certainly don’t seem to suit this cold who won the Robert B. Lewis will a front-end effort. Toss.

Midnight Bourbon (30-1 – 66 - 2nd Louisiana Derby (G2), 96 - Tiznow – Mike Smith / Steve Asmussen - 7: 2-2-3 - $467,100) – This consistent colt picked up 66 points with a win in the Lecomte (G3) in January and then with a third and a second in the other Fair Grounds prep races. Midnight Bourbon was second in the Louisiana Derby going the 9.5 furlongs pressing the pace of Hot Rod Charlie. He could get Asmussen another top three finish in the Derby. Use underneath.

Mandaloun (20-1 – 52 – 6th Louisiana Derby (G2), 82 - Into Mischief - TBA / Brad Cox - 5: 3-0-1 - $361,252) Mandaloun, another Brad Cox horse in the race, was the impressive winner of 50 points in the Risen Star (G2) as the 2-1 favorite. He headed into the Louisiana Derby as the 6-5 favorite and came up empty to run sixth which was the first off-the-board finish of his career. It’s hard to dismiss that kind of performance from a horse who has always shown up and run well. He will be one of many horses that has shown a preference to press the pace. Toss.

Caddo River (30-1 – 50 – 2nd Arkansas Derby (G1), 88 - Hard Spun – TBA / Brad Cox - 6: 2-3-0 - $396,092) The third of three Brad Cox runners to make the Derby field. His valiant second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby secured enough points after his disappointing performance in the Rebel (G2). As expected, Caddo River set the pace in the big race at Oaklawn Park, battling with Concert Tour. Whether it was the nine-furlong distance or the front-end duel, he was easily overtaken by the late move of Super Stock, although he was game to defeat Concert Tour for second. He will have to go another furlong on the first Saturday in May. Toss.

Highly Motivated (8-1 – 50 – 2nd Blue Grass (G2), 97 - Into Mischief - Javier Castellano / Chad Brown - 5: 2-2-1 - $320,050) Highly Motivated gets high marks for coming within a neck of defeating Essential Quality in the Blue Grass after setting all of the fractions. In defeat, however, he was far ahead of the rest of the field, which shows the quality of his performance. Trainer Chad Brown and rider Javier Castellano are both looking for their first Derby win. This son of Into Mischief joins the long list of horses that want to be part of the early pace. Use underneath.

Helium (30-1 – 50 – 1st Tampa Bay Derby (G2), 84 - Ironicus – Julien Leparoux / Mark Casse - 3: 3-0-0 - $287,763) Like Rock Your World, Helium has a career record of 3-for-3, but there is a huge difference in their odds. Helium will try to win the Derby with only one start as a 3-year-old. It was a late-running win in the Tampa Bay Derby, where he closed from 10th to win at odds of 15-1. Immediately after the victory, trainer Mark Casse said that they would train up to the Derby, which meant a two-month layoff. There will be plenty of pace to set up his closing move. Use underneath.

Soup and Sandwich (20-1 – 40 – 2nd Florida Derby (G1), 90 - Into Mischief – Tyler Gaffalione / Mark Casse - 3: 2-1-0 - $203,875) After winning the first two races of his career, which began this year, this second Mark Casse Derby horse burst onto the scene when he ran second in the Florida Derby at odds of 12-1. Soup and Sandwich, who was bred and races for the family that founded Campbell Soup Co., pressed the pace and had the lead until he was overtaken by Known Agenda. There is a long list of horses with similar running styles, which will make it hard for handicappers to separate them. This son of Into Mischief might have room for further improvement. Use underneath.

Dynamic One (30-1 – 40 – 2nd Wood Memorial (G2), 89 - Union Rags – Jose Ortiz /Todd Pletcher - 5: 1-2-0 - $194,120) Dynamic One is the third Pletcher runner in the field, and this guy was handled with plenty of patience by his trainer. He faced tough fields in his early maiden races. In his fourth try at Aqueduct, he got what is currently his only win. In the Wood Memorial, he made a closing move, took the lead in the stretch and looked like a winner until his stablemate caught him at the wire. The connections were very high on this horse heading into his last race. He will have plenty of horses out front to set the table for his closing move. Win contender.

Sainthood (50-1 – 40 - 2nd Jeff Ruby (G3), 84 - Mshawish – TBA / Todd Pletcher - 3: 1-2-0 - $91,900) Sainthood is the fourth Pletcher runner in the Derby field and, in a way, might be the most interesting. Lightly raced and late-developing, this son of Mshawish most recently sold for $62,000 as a yearling and races for the high-powered partnership of WinStar and CHC Inc. (China Horse Club). On the dirt, he was second in his debut at Gulfstream Park and then broke his maiden on the main track at Fair Grounds. Pletcher put him in the Jeff Ruby on the Tapeta, where at odds of 10-1, he encountered traffic in the stretch, had to check and lost all momentum. He recovered quickly, got clear and closed a lot of ground to finish second, beaten by only a length. Back on the dirt in the Derby, this guy will come with big odds and a chance to rally into the exotics. A must use in exotics.

Hidden Stash (50-1 – 32 – 4th Blue Grass (G2), 82 – Constitution - Rafael Bejarano / Vicki Oliver - 7: 2-1-2 - $231,062) Hidden Stash passed tired horses in a trio of Derby preps and earned points in all three. He was third in the Sam F. Davis, second in the Tampa Derby and most recently fourth in the Blue Grass. Doing that in the Run for Roses has allowed some long shots to sneak into the trifecta or superfecta. Use underneath.

Dream Shake (30-1 – 30 – 3rd Santa Anita Derby (G1), 90 – TBA / Peter Eurton - 3: 1-0-2 - $162,600) Dream Shake is listed as possible for the Derby by Churchill Downs, but right now he is part of the field of 20. Remember, he came on the scene with a debut maiden win at 20-1 in the race where Bezos flopped as the odds-on favorite. To his credit, Dream Shake then ran third in the San Felipe (G2) and the Santa Anita Derby. Toss.

O Besos (30-1 – 25 – 3rd Louisiana Derby (G2), 96 – Orb - Marcelino Pedroza / Greg Foley – 5: 2-0-1 - $172,624) Two victories for O Besos came in a maiden special weight and an allowance at Fair Grounds. He stayed in New Orleans for the final two Derby preps and ran fourth in the Risen Star (G2) and third in the Louisiana Derby, where he rallied from eighth and last when he was seven lengths behind. Use underneath.

Get Her Number (50-1 – 20 – 4th Arkansas Derby (G1), 87 - TBA / Peter Miller - 5: 2-0-0 - $275,667) He was a debut winner in a turf sprint at Del Mar during the summer. Get Her Number shifted to the dirt in his third start, when he won the American Pharoah (G1) at odds of 8-1 in September at Santa Anita. There he pressed the pace in second, led with three furlongs to go and held on to win. Two stops on the Derby trail at Oaklawn yielded a seventh in the Rebel and a fourth in the Arkansas Derby. Toss.

SUMMARY: The HRN morning line has Essential Quality and Rock Your World as the top two choices. Coincidence or not, those two also have the three major characteristics of recent Kentucky Derby winners – a victory in a 100-point race, unbeaten as a 3-year-old and a preference to run close to the early pace.

As I wrote this odds and analysis and went from horse to horse, it became clear that a significant number of horses have done their best racing when part of the early pace – on the lead, pressing the pace, or stalking close behind. That is going to make the post-position draw more significant than in other years and points to a very strong pace in this year’s Derby.

Be sure to watch the upcoming Kentucky Derby editions of HorseCenter when Brian Zipse and I will give out our top choices, long shots, suggested wagers and pace projector.

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