Back at its traditional place on the calendar on the first Saturday in May and using the new 20-horse gate for only the second time in history, Saturday's 147th running of the $3 million Grade 1 Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve is expected to be a very competitive event.
Among the 20 entrants, only four have won two or more consecutive races leading to the “Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” One of those is Essential Quality, who is undefeated in five races including the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance last fall and most recently the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Rock Your World is another undefeated colt, having won his first two races on grass before a consummate 4 1/4-length victory in the Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby last month on dirt. Another top quality colt sporting two straight wins is Known Agenda, the easy winner of the Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill 'n' Dale Farm at Xalapa five weeks ago. Super Stock won another of the major prep races when victorious in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby four weeks ago. Bourbonic posted the 72.25-1 upset in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino on the first Saturday in April,and Helium won the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on the first Saturday in March but has not raced since. Another horse away from the races a bit more than some of the others is Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie. The Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks was won by Like the King near the end of March, while King Fury won the final prep of the season, the Grade 3 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes, three weeks ago.
In addition to those Derby prep race winners, six horses which finished second in those major races, some by inches, are trying to turn the tables on their foes. That list consists of Dynamic One (Wood Memorial), Highly Motivated (Blue Grass), Medina Spirit (Santa Anita Derby), Midnight Bourbon (Louisiana Derby), Sainthood (Jeff Ruby) and Soup and Sandwich (Florida Derby). O Besos finished fourth in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presnted by Lamarque Ford and third in the Louisiana Derby and hopes to improve, as does Wood Memorial fifth-place finisher Brooklyn Strong and Louisiana Derby sixth place-finisher Mandaloun, who had won the Risen Star prior to that. The field is completed by Hidden Stash and Keepmeinmind, who were most recently fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Blue Grass.
It is with some handicapping liberty every year that I delineate six horses that have the best chance to win the Kentucky Derby. Some will have a larger chance to win than others, but some of those with a lesser chance may offer a lot more return for the risk when betting and are certainly not out of the question. For this year’s Derby the top six win contenders, in slight preference order, are Rock Your World, Known Agenda, Essential Quality, Highly Motivated, King Fury and Super Stock.
Rock Your World was bred to adore both turf and dirt. He started his career on the grass, winning with maturity from off the pace in his debut on New Year’s Day then going into a stakes race in his next start and winning even more powerfully. Trainer John Sadler has stated, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, the reason for this was to avoid all the fantastically bred 3-year-old colts trained by Bob Baffert which quickly become talked about as Derby contenders early in the year. In any event, Rock Your World transitioned to dirt for the third start of his career in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby and it was a career-best effort in which he earned a 103 Equibase Speed Figure.
That’s not yet in range of the top contenders in the Derby field – for example Essential Quality (109) and Known Agenda (112) – but considering Rock Your World has raced fewer times as compared to those other two horses, it is very likely he can run even faster than he has to date. In the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, Rock Your World led from the start and widened in the last quarter-mile, but he does not need the lead to win as evidenced by his off-the-pace rallies in the first two starts of his career. Since then, Rock Your World has put in two sensational five-eighths of a mile workouts in preparation for the Kentucky Derby, so there can be no doubt he’s in tip-top condition. Add to that he has a physical presence, as when getting off the van at Churchill Downs earlier this week and noisily announcing “I’m Here” to anyone who was within earshot. Last, and definitely not least, it must be noted that after he crossed the finish line last out, Rock Your World was not eased up as most horses are. Instead, he was ridden further as if the race was longer in order to remind him of his next task in the mile and one-quarter test that is the Kentucky Derby.
Known Agenda has been a new horse, a phenomenal horse, since blinkers were added two races ago. He won the first race in the new equipment by 11 lengths with a 103 (stakes-quality) Equibase Speed Figure though it wasn’t a stakes race. Then one month later in the Florida Derby, Known Agenda showed a quick burst of speed with a quarter-mile to go when moving from fourth, 2 1/2 lengths back, to lead entering the stretch. That effort earned a career-best 112 figure which is the best in the Kentucky Derby field, and his pattern for improvement can continue. Historically, that is the type of burst of speed which wins more editions of the Kentucky Derby than it does not. This is because it’s critical to go past a number of horses quickly before many of them will be able to react. At that point in the Derby, there’s not usually a lot of passing, as many horses have hit the proverbial wall human runners know about very well. The rail draw has historically been problematic in the Derby, and so it might be for Known Agenda, but given 2020 North American leading jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. knows him so well after those two wins, I suspect they may be able to hold mid-pace position in the early stages in spite of a number of horses coming closer to the rail to save ground. If that happens and Known Agenda gets a ground-saving trip without losing too many positions out of the gate – and if he's able to repeat the acceleration he showed with a quarter-mile to run in the Florida Derby – he could win Kentucky Derby 147.
It is difficult to disregard any undefeated horse, especially one like Essential Quality. He won the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity last fall in only the second start of his career, then won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and since then he's won both starts as a 3-year-old. The pattern is unmistakable for an improving athlete, with Equibase figures of 88-95-101 and 105 before a new career-best 109 in the Blue Grass Stakes. In the Blue Grass, Essential Quality looked like he would never go by Highly Motivated, who had led from the start, but as the finish line came nearer his determination took over and he prevailed by a neck. As he is making his third start following nearly four months off, Essential Quality likely has more improving to do and if he peaks in the Kentucky Derby as is certainly possible he could become the 10th horse to exit the Derby undefeated.
Highly Motivated did everything right in the Blue Grass except come out on top in the photo and there is nothing to be ashamed of in finishing a head behind undefeated Essential Quality. After improving throughout his 2-year-old campaign with 87, 89 and 104 figures including winning the Nyquist Stakes in his last start of 2020, Highly Motivated took four months off to grow up. Returning to finish third in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes in March with a 102 figure, in his next start Highly Motivated went to the front from the outset in the Blue Grass and kept Essential Quality at bay until the final strides, improving to a career-best 108 figure that's not to be trifled with when compared to the other top contenders in this field. Although he hasn't shown the explosive kick at the quarter pole similar to Known Agenda, it must be noted that both Highly Motivated and Essential Quality both quickened their stride with about a quarter of a mile to run in the Blue Grass and opened up many lengths on the rest of the field. This leads me to believe that in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field, Highly Motivated may be able to change gears nicely at the critical stage of the race and have a say in the outcome.
King Fury (SCRATCHED) and Super Stock are both likely to be longshots (20-1 or more) and although both have less chance to succeed as compared to the four horses previously mentioned, I would be kicking myself if I didn't make at least small wager to win on both of them and then watch them win at very high odds. King Fury won the first and third races of his career last year. Both happened to be at Churchill Downs and the latter of the pair came in the Street Sense Stakes. Following poor seventh- and fifth-place efforts in stakes to end 2020, King Fury was given 4 1/2 months off. Returning just three weeks ago in the Lexington Stakes, King Fury closed from eighth of nine like a flash to make the lead at the top of the stretch and he opened up to win easily. The 103 Equibase figure is the same as Rock Your World earned in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby and definitely can be improved upon in the colt’s second start off the long layoff. As a son of Curlin (the same sire as Known Agenda), who himself finished third in the 2007 Derby and who has sired the most winners at this 10-furlong distance of any other stallion who has a starter in the 2020 Derby, there is little doubt King Fury should be able to run the mile and a quarter successfully.
Super Stock put it all together for the 12.20-1 upset in the Arkansas Derby last month, earning a career-best 106 figure which puts him in the top group of win contenders. He had finished fourth in the Rebel Stakes one month earlier, but that followed 4 1/2 months off and he may not have been fully cranked up for the Rebel. He finished third behind Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity last fall and second behind King Fury in the Street Sense Stakes in October and now appears back in top form with room to improve. If that indeed is the case, Super Stock should not be ruled out as a contender to post the upset in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
The rest of the Kentucky Derby field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures is Brooklyn Strong (99), Bourbonic (100), Dynamic One (103), Hidden Stash (93), Helium (94), Hot Rod Charlie (100), Keepmeinmind (98), Like the King (95), Mandaloun (97), Medina Spirit (109), Midnight Bourbon (96), O Besos (96), Sainthood (93) and Soup and Sandwich (108).
Rock Your World
King Fury (Grade 3 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes winner spiked a fever after his morning gallop on April 30 and was scratched from the race.)