2021 Kentucky Derby Preview, Part 1: The Contenders

by Al McMordie

Wednesday, Apr 28, 2021
Over the next four days, we'll be previewing the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby.  Today, we will take a look at the top contenders.  Later this week, we'll focus on the value plays (Thursday), over-bet pretenders (Friday) and the bombs to use in exotic wagers (Saturday).

In many ways the 2021 Kentucky Derby could be subtitled "back to normal".  After going way off course in 2020, the Derby will look like the Derby again this coming weekend.  It will be run on the first Saturday in May; it will likely top the headlines for the weekend; and there will be real fans in the stands.  But one thing will yet again be different.  For the first time in a long time, Bob Baffert will not have a strong favorite in the race (and he will only have one horse entered as well).  In fact, the California-based trainer's Medina Spirit will likely be no better than the fourth-favorite when the gates open at about 6:55 pm ET this Saturday. 
So does this mean that the 2021 version is a wide open Derby that could yield a winner such as Mine that Bird or Giacomo?  Not likely, but you could still get a decent price (as was the case last year when Baffert's Authentic won at odds of 8-1).  So who are the most likely winners?  Where will the value lie?  Who will be over-bet?  And what longshots are the ones to include in your exotics (exactas, trifectas, etc).  We now present Part 1 of our preview of the 2021 Run for the Roses: 
Top Contenders: 
Essential Quality (trainer Brad Cox, jockey Luis Saez) 
You would have to look long and hard to find anything wrong that the undefeated son of Tapit has done in getting this far.  And even then you would come up empty.  Simply put, Essential Quality has been like Nolan Ryan in any of his seven no-hitters.  So why bet against him?  Well for starters, we had an almost identical case last year when Tiz The Law not only ran perfect in the spring, but also in the summer leading up to the belated October Derby.  And he could do no better than second.  So go ahead and put your eggs in this basket and nobody will blame you.  Just not all of your eggs. 
Rock Your World (John Sadler, Joel Rosario)   
Baffert may not have one of the top horses, but that doesn't mean that California isn't well-represented.  This son of Candy Ride won the Santa Anita Derby in impressive fashion and if there isn't much pace in the Derby (and there doesn't appear to be), then Rock Your World may just play a game of 'catch me if you can.'  Rosario picks up the mount from California turf specialist Umberto Rispoli (Rispoli has since picked up the mount on Brooklyn Strong, who just drew into the race on Monday) and that certainly makes Sadler's 3YO an even more attractive choice.  From a speed figure perspective, Rock Your World's Santa Anita Derby is right there with Essential Quality's best races, but he figures to go off at significantly longer odds (6-1 vs. 3-1). 
Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz) 
Like Baffert, it's rare for Pletcher not to have at least one horse who is in the top three or four favorites in the Derby.  He doesn't win as often as Baffert, but his top horses have to be taken seriously.  And this son of Classic winner Curlin is a serious contender based on his last two efforts.  There isn't a better jockey in the country right now than Ortiz, who comes to Churchill Downs off successful meets at Keeneland and Aqueduct.  And before those two, he set the single-season Championship Meet win record at Gulfstream Park over the Winter.  Part of that Meet record for Ortiz was a dominant win aboard Known Agenda in the March 27 Florida Derby.  Can Known Agenda win outside of Florida?  And can he win from the dreaded #1 post position?  Those questions will be answered on Saturday.  And you're likely to get a nice price (maybe 10-1) to find out.

Our 2021 Kentucky Derby Preview, Part 2:  The Value Plays will be published tomorrow, on Thursday.

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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