This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose stock has fallen since the 147th edition of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs May 1.
In this edition, the focus is what we learned in the first jewel of the Triple Crown about the 19 horses who competed in the race.
You didn’t expect to see a different horse in the top spot, did you? Medina Spirit far exceeded my expectations in winning the 2021 Kentucky Derby by a half-length as well as those of his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert: “This is the Derby that – my other Derbys, there were some I lost that I thought I couldn't lose – but this is the only Derby I came in here thinking, I just don't know if we got the goods. We know he’s solid, he’s good, and he’s tough. But everything’s going to have to go really well to get it done.” The Protonico colt benefitted from a Hall of Fame ride from John Velazquez, but what everyone underestimated was just how tough Medina Spirit is … he is a true fighter. When Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford winner Mandaloun, Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie, and champion Essential Quality challenged Medina Spirit in the stretch after setting a strong pace, the winner just would not let any of them pass him. I went into more detail in this week’s Making the Grade profile, but suffice it to say Medina Spirit deserves every accolade after a gutsy win in a career-defining race.
After an absolute clunker in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, Mandaloun was largely written off as a serious contender for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. That was understandable because 3-year-olds that underperform in their final prep race almost never win the Kentucky Derby and typically do not perform very well. While Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford winner Mandaloun did not win on May 1 at Churchill Downs – he came up a half-length short to Medina Spirit – he did bounce back with the best race of his career in the Kentucky Derby. He earned a new career-best 110 Equibase Speed Figure, a 13-point improvement, and improved his Beyer Speed Figure three points to a new best 101. With three wins, a second, and a third in six starts, it feels safe to draw a line through the Louisiana Derby sixth-place finish as an outlier. Perhaps he just wasn’t himself that day or he got discouraged by the way that race played out, but it looks like the real Mandaloun is the one who won the Risen Star by 1 ¼ lengths and ran a game second in the Kentucky Derby. As trainer Brad Cox said of the Juddmonte Farms homebred, “He ran huge.”
3. O Besos
Among the longshots leading into the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, few generated as much buzz from the sharpest analysts as O Besos. Still, he was 41.70-1 odds when the starting gates opened at 6:59 p.m. ET on May 1 and he outran his odds in a fifth-place finish. Although he was 4 ½ lengths behind fourth-place finisher Essential Quality, O Besos proved he belongs with the elite 3-year-olds of this crop and further validated the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby as a key race that produced the second-, third-, fifth-, and sixth-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby in Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, O Besos, and Midnight Bourbon, respectively. Like Mandaloun, he earned a career-best 103 Equibase Speed Figure and 96 Beyer Speed Figure in the Kentucky Derby. I’d bet the next goal for O Besos’ connections is getting him his first stakes win in an easier spot (he is reportedly not targeting the Preakness Stakes), but we could definitely see him in some of the bigger races within the 3-year-old division in summer and early fall.
Although I was skeptical of his ability to excel at 1 ¼ miles, Highly Motivated never really made much of an impact on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve despite a perfect trip. One race after giving champion Essential Quality all he could handle in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes when second by a neck in a gutsy effort, Highly Motivated faded from fifth to 10th in the final quarter-mile as the fifth betting choice at 10.70-1 odds. It looked like he just came up empty when the time came to accelerate and finished 11 lengths behind the winner. Trainer Chad Brown said as much after the race: “I thought I got a great trip, into the first turn and down the backside, and he just didn't fire today. I thought I got a hot setup and I wanted to be just behind that and that's where we were. He got over early, he saved ground on both turns; I got a dream trip. I hate to waste that kind of trip in the Derby on a horse that didn't fire today. It is what it is and we'll just have to regroup.” I believe Highly Motivated is a much better racehorse than he showed on May 1, but a 19-horse field, stretching out to 1 ¼ miles, in front of a big crowd just proved too many obstacles for him to overcome at Churchill Downs.
2. Known Agenda
When I watched the Kentucky Derby live, I thought Known Agenda got squished against the rail by Like the King about an eighth of a mile after the start, forcing him to drop back to 17th in the 19-horse field. In hindsight, that was probably me looking for an excuse for my top selection who was breaking from the inside post in the race. In watching the replay several times since, Known Agenda was definitely in a little bit tight, but nothing like what I thought I saw on first watch. I do believe there was a bit of an intimidation factor there as the entirety of the field angled toward Known Agenda after he got away to a solid start from post-position one, but he was hurt mostly by his lack of tactical speed. In my Making the Grade blogs and these Heating Up, Cooling Down columns, I often talk about how vital tactical speed has become in recent years in the Kentucky Derby. The horse who crossed the finish line first in each of the last eight editions of the Derby was third or better after the opening quarter-mile, including Maximum Security, who was disqualified in 2019. Breaking from the inside without the speed to place himself behind the top tier, Known Agenda was up against it and never factored in the race as the 9.90-1 fourth betting choice. He did pass some tiring horses late, advancing from 17th to finish ninth, but it’s hard to argue this wasn’t a disappointing effort from the winner of the Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill 'n' Dale Farms at Xalapa. His Equibase Speed Figure dropped from a 112 for the Florida Derby to a 96. Like Highly Motivated, I believe Known Agenda is better than he showed May 1 at Churchill. According to reports, he is not targeting the Preakness Stakes May 15, but given there very likely will be a much faster pace and less traffic congestion, I actually think the Preakness would be a good spot for him.
3. King Fury
The Stonestreet Lexington Stakes winner spiked a fever April 30 that forced him to miss the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. He was one of the Derby longshots I thought had a great chance to factor in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, but in hindsight he might have been up against it as a deep closer in a race in which none of the top four finishers was worse than seventh and all were positioned in the top four with a quarter-mile remaining. King Fury seemed to be recovering from the fever quickly and was under consideration for the Preakness May 15, but his fever returned May 4 and instead his connections will target the Travers Stakes over the summer at Saratoga Race Course. This colt by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin out of Grade 1 winner Taris, by Flatter, looks like an elite talent. It’s disappointing he won’t get a chance to compete in a Triple Crown race but his connections are making the right decision to give him plenty of time to recover from illness.
Of note: By this point almost everyone knows of the trouble Rock Your World encountered in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Rider Joel Rosario’s left foot got knocked out of his stirrup at the start and Rock Your World was then bumped by Highly Motivated to his outside and jostled between that horse and Essential Quality to his inside in just the first 25 yards or so. For a speed horse, he was absolutely taken out of his game and Rosario was forced to push him ahead about four paths wide into stalking position in 10th when the field passed the finish line for the first time with a mile to run. He was then hung wide on the first turn and thus had no shortage of viable excuses when he faded noticeably and finished 17th of 19, beaten by 24 ¼ lengths. Said trainer John Sadler: “We got squeezed at the start and we were done. No chance.” … Likewise, I had trouble knocking champion Essential Quality for a fourth-place Kentucky Derby finish in which he ran significantly farther than the winner thanks to ground loss and still was only a length back at the finish line. Sure, the shine of an untarnished record is now gone, but this colt was plenty game on Derby day and earned a new top Beyer Speed Figure (100) while equaling his top Equibase Speed Figure (109). Trainer Brad Cox said on May 4 that Essential Quality would skip the Preakness Stakes, with his next start to be determined.