Last week’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships all but closed the book on an unprecedented year in horse racing. A sport anchored in tradition and continuity had its calendar upended in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a rescheduled and reshuffled Triple Crown that started with a shortened Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets in June and ended with the Preakness Stakes on the first weekend in October.
Moving the Triple Crown races and extending the prep season meant that the emergence of 2-year-olds during the summer and fall were overshadowed somewhat by the marquee 3-year-old races. Still, there were the usual precocious juvenile debuts at Saratoga and Del Mar and in Kentucky over the summer, and encouraging performances by budding stars more recently in graded stakes that are part of Churchill Downs’ Road to the Kentucky Derby points series.
The road to the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will, as it always does, take plenty of unexpected twists and turns as contenders rise and fall with each passing prep race. Forecasting the 20-horse field – and even taking an early stand on a potential winner backed by a future wager – is an annual highlight of Derby season, and the bookmakers at William Hill are taking fixed-odds future wagers on Derby 147, which will be held May 1, 2021.
Churchill Downs has already announced that it will hold next year’s Derby on the traditional first Saturday in May, so it’s a good bet (but still not certain due to the ongoing pandemic) that most prep races will also be held along a traditional schedule over the next six-plus months.
As in years past, in this blog we’ll take a periodic look at William Hill’s future-book odds for the Kentucky Derby and profile some of the contenders.
Nov. 9 William Hill Odds Leaders to Win the 2021 Kentucky Derby:
1) Essential Quality (10-1)
2) Jackie’s Warrior (40-1)
3) Highly Motivated (45-1)
4) Dr. Schivel (50-1)
4) Hot Rod Charlie (50-1)
6) Jaxon Traveler (60-1)
Essential Quality: This Godolphin homebred Tapit colt vaulted to the top of the 2-year-old division with a three-quarter length win in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at Keeneland on Nov. 6, rallying from off the pace and forging ahead of huge longshot Hot Rod Charlie in the final sixteenth. He traveled four wide through the backstretch and into the far turn and made a grinding run once straightened out in the stretch by Luis Saez, who was urging him strongly all the way through to the finish. Essential Quality earned a career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure in the Juvenile, making another progression from an 85 in his four-length debut win at Churchill Downs in September and then a 96 in his 3 ¼-length win in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity in October at Keeneland. Currently the points leader for the 2021 Derby with a total of 30, he's sitting at 10-1 odds in William Hill’s November book with the run for the roses more than six months away, which is the textbook definition of an underlay. His pedigree is also iffy for handling the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter distance: dam Delightful Quality was a sprinter who placed in multiple stakes and is a half-sister to 2005 champion 2-year-old filly Folklore, whose only two-turn win came in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. On the other hand, this year’s Japanese Triple Crown winner Contrail is also a close relative on his dam’s side having been produced by one of Folklore’s daughters. That colt is undefeated through seven starts and recently won the final leg of the Triple Crown, the Japanese St. Leger, at about 1 7/8 miles.
Jackie’s Warrior: This dual Grade 1 winner suffered his first defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, taking the lead in early stretch but then being outrun by 94.40-1 shot Hot Rod Charlie and tiring in the final furlong. In his two prior stakes wins – the Runhappy Hopeful Stakes and the Champagne Stakes, both around one turn – he shot out to an uncontested lead and powered clear of his opponents in the stretch. He could not get the early lead in the Juvenile, however, and never seemed to be quite comfortable pressing a fast pace. Jackie’s Warrior is currently getting 40-1 odds at William Hill, which seems about right given that no other 2-year-old aside from Essential Quality has really emerged yet. Still, the jury’s definitely out on his long-term Derby potential after he came up short in the Juvenile, and he’ll need to rebound in his next two-turn prep race. His pedigree also suggests that a mile may end up being his best distance.
Highly Motivated: This Into Mischief colt with top-notch connections – owner Klaravich Stables and trainer Chad Brown – turned heads on the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup “Future Stars Friday” undercard with a dominant 4 ¼-length win in the 6 ½-furlong Nyquist Stakes at Keeneland, overcoming an awkward start. He earned a career-best 101 Equibase Speed Figure in the Nyquist, which was his third career start after losing by a neck in his Saratoga debut and then winning a 6 ½-furlong Belmont Park maiden by 1 ¾ lengths. North American leading sire Into Mischief picked up his first Derby winner (and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner) this year with Authentic, but Highly Motivated’s female family tilts toward sprint distances and lacks graded stakes star power. He’s offered at 45-1 odds by William Hill.
Dr. Schivel: This colt has not raced since winning the seven-furlong Runhappy Del Mar Futurity by 1 ¾ lengths on Sept. 7. He was moved to trainer Mark Glatt after that victory and his owners announced that he would take a 90-day break before resuming training. He’s another early Derby future-book horse whose pedigree does not exactly jump off the page in terms of classic-distance stamina; Dr. Schivel’s dam was a sprinter who toiled in the claiming ranks, although his young sire, Violence, by Medaglia d’Oro, did show much promise as a Derby contender before retiring early during his 3-year-old season back in 2013. It will be interesting to see when and where Dr. Schivel makes his next start, and it should give a good indication as to whether his connections feel he’s a true Derby horse or not. As it stands, his current 50-1 odds on William Hill’s sheet are too low.
Hot Rod Charlie: This Oxbow colt outran his 94.40-1 odds in a big way Nov. 6, finishing less than a length behind Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and he’s currently rated at 50-1 odds as a Derby prospect by William Hill. He entered the juvenile off a neck win in a two-turn, one-mile maiden special weight race at Santa Anita on Oct. 2, which followed three defeats to start his career at Del Mar over the summer. He made a forceful move in early stretch to get past Jackie’s Warrior in the Juvenile and could not finish the deal, but could be developing at just the right time for trainer Doug O’Neill, who won two Kentucky Derbys last decade with I’ll Have Another and Nyquist. Once again, Hot Rod Charlie has a questionable pedigree for 1 ¼ miles, although young sire Oxbow did win the 2013 Preakness. His dam’s side pedigree suggests speed, although it’s elite speed. This colt is a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to last year’s champion sprinter Mitole.
Jaxon Traveler: Like Jackie’s Warrior, Jaxon Traveler is trained by Steve Asmussen. He has won his two starts at Pimlico and Laurel Park by a combined 14 lengths, both in six-furlong races. This unbeaten Maryland-bred Munnings colt is pointed to the seven-furlong Maryland Juvenile Futurity at Laurel on Dec. 5 for his next start, and if he dominates that race as well his connections will have a pleasant decision to make moving forward into 2021 as to when and where to stretch him out and test him against elite stakes company. His sire was a sprinter, but Munnings has had some success with two-turn graded stakes winners such as I’m a Chatterbox and Warrior’s Charge. Jaxon Traveler’s dam, Listen Boy, by turf router After Market, competed in one mile and 1 1/16-mile races on both dirt and turf with modest results. He’s sitting at underlaid 60-1 odds on William Hill’s Nov. 9 sheet.
Three to Watch:
Known Agenda and Greatest Honour finished a head-bobbing 1-2 in a 1 1/8-mile maiden special weight at Aqueduct on Nov. 8 and are both offered at odds of 125-1 by William Hill. The pair separated themselves from the rest of the field and engaged in a throwdown duel through the stretch, neither backing down. That’s very encouraging for 2-year-olds racing at a distance that’s only an eighth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby. Known Agenda, trained by Todd Pletcher, entered the race off of a runner-up finish to Highly Motivated (see above) at Belmont Park, and his pedigree is promising for further development as a son of Hall of Famer and top sire Curlin and out of a dam, Byrama, who won the 1 1/8-mile Vanity Handicap. Greatest Honour nearly broke through in his third career start after finishing third twice in seven-furlong races, at Saratoga and Belmont. He’s trained by the ultra-patient Shug McGaughey and definitely bears watching over the winter as a son of Tapit and out of Tiffany’s Honour, by Street Cry. Tiffany’s Honour is a daughter of 2007 Broodmare of the Year Better Than Honour, making her a half-sister to Belmont Stakes winners Rags to Riches and Jazil.
Rombauer: This California-based son of Twirling Candy ran fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but kept grinding through the stretch at 26-1 odds. He had finished second to Get Her Number (currently sidelined and getting 75-1 odds at William Hill) in the American Pharoah Stakes by three-quarters of a length in his prior start at Santa Anita, and won one of two starts before that in one-mile Del Mar races. Trained by Mike McCarthy, Rombauer has a very interesting pedigree that’s replete with stakes winners on his unraced dam’s side. They include her half-siblings Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner California Flag and stakes winner Cambiocorsa. Cambiocorsa was also a multiple stakes winner at sprint distances, but as a broodmare she has produced four graded stakes winners and also is the grandam of English and Irish highweight Roaring Lion, a $3.5 million earner and winner of the 2018 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at 1 ¼ miles on turf in England. Rombauer is offered at 100-1 odds by William Hill; look for him to resurface at Los Alamitos or Santa Anita over the winter in a Derby prep.