Kentucky Derby watch: New No. 1 in the rankings, plenty of intrigue after final preps

Ben Roberts
·17 min read

The Kentucky Derby prep season is over, and now the real handicapping can begin.

The final Saturday of prep races produced a couple of surprise winners — Super Stock in the Arkansas Derby and King Fury in the Lexington Stakes — and, most notably, the defeat of previously unbeaten Concert Tour, who looked like Bob Baffert’s best bet at a record seventh Derby victory going into the weekend.

Concert Tour had also been the No. 1 colt in these Derby rankings the past few weeks and appeared to be the only logical alternative to Essential Quality as the favorite for the first Saturday in May.

Now, Essential Quality — trained by Louisville native Brad Cox — is the clear Kentucky Derby favorite. Here’s a look at the new rankings now that all of the prep races have been run (with the latest odds provided to the Herald-Leader by the William Hill sportsbook).

1. Essential Quality

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Odds: 7-2

Trainer: Brad Cox

Jockey: Luis Saez

Pedigree: Tapit — Delightful Quality by Elusive Quality

There’s no disputing it any longer. While there are certainly some other intriguing options for your win bet May 1, it’s now clear that Essential Quality is the horse to beat. He’s the reigning champion of this class and last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. He’s 5-for-5, with four of those victories coming in graded stakes races. He broke his maiden at Churchill Downs. One of his best races came on a sloppy track (and it seems to always rain on Louisville in May these days). He has the defending Eclipse Award-winning trainer in his corner. His speed numbers are right up there with the best of this group. He has a running style that fits the profile of recent Derby winners, and he seems to be improving. There were eight 100-point races on the prep calendar this year. Seven favorites failed to win. Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes was the exception. He is, simply put, the class of this Kentucky Derby field. The gray son of Tapit has been at Churchill Downs since last week and is scheduled to have two workouts over the track before Derby Day.

2. Rock Your World

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Odds: 5-1

Trainer: John Sadler

Jockey: Umberto Rispoli

Pedigree: Candy Ride — Charm the Maker by Empire Maker

The debate now is who should be the second choice for next month’s Derby. The speed figures — as well as the eyeballs — say Rock Your World has a pretty good case. Looking at each Derby contender’s final prep race, this turf-to-dirt star has the fastest numbers of the group. His Santa Anita Derby victory produced the best Beyer (100) and TimeformUS (124) figures, and he tied with Blue Grass Stakes 1-2 finishers Essential Quality and Highly Motivated for the best Brisnet speed figure (102). Those numbers all came in his first start on dirt — a surface over which he’d been training exceptionally — and just his third career start. If he can take a step forward on that — and there’s little reason to think he can’t — he should be right in the thick of things in the Derby stretch. Rock Your World won the Santa Anita Derby running on the rail and on the lead, yes, but he seems versatile enough to hang off the pace a bit, if that’s what’s needed May 1. There’s a lot to like here.

3. Known Agenda

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Odds: 5-1

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.

Pedigree: Curlin — Byrama by Byron

Blinkers and a prep season reset appear to have worked wonders for Known Agenda, who disappointed in the Remsen Stakes last December and the Tampa Bay Derby in February before adding the equipment and getting moved to allowance company a few weeks later. He won that race by 11 lengths before an impressive victory in the Florida Derby. (Those are also the only two races in which Irad Ortiz Jr., the Eclipse Award-winning jockey the past three years, has been aboard). His Florida Derby win earned the best Equibase speed figure (112) for this 3-year-old class. The last horse to run a faster Equibase figure in the Florida Derby was Monarchos two decades ago. He went on to win the Kentucky Derby in the second-fastest time ever, behind only Secretariat. That potpourri of figures and times is a muddled way of saying Known Agenda is a promising colt and another who appears to be improving at the right time. He arrived at Churchill Downs this week.

4. Hot Rod Charlie

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Odds: 10-1

Trainer: Doug O’Neill

Jockey: Flavien Prat

Pedigree: Oxbow — Indian Miss by Indian Charlie

Hot Rod Charlie gets another run at Essential Quality in a couple of weeks after finishing as the runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall. Since then, he nearly beat Medina Spirit in his first start of 2021 then shipped to New Orleans and won the Louisiana Derby against (we think) one of the most talented fields for a prep race this year. He’s in top form for two-time Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill, and he’ll get a rider change for May 1. Joel Rosario has been aboard for both 2021 starts, but he also rides Concert Tour, and O’Neill went ahead and made the decision this week to snag Flavien Prat, who won the Derby on Country House two years ago, while he was still available. Prat was aboard Hot Rod Charlie in a workout at Santa Anita Park on Saturday.

5. Highly Motivated

Last week’s ranking: No. 6

Odds: 14-1

Trainer: Chad Brown

Jockey: Javier Castellano

Pedigree: Into Mischief — Strong Incentive by Warrior’s Reward

A return to Keeneland was the right move for Highly Motivated, who came within a neck of handing Essential Quality his first defeat two weeks ago in the Blue Grass Stakes. The son of Into Mischief — sire of last year’s Derby winner, Authentic — ran a big race in Lexington on Breeders’ Cup Friday last fall before a long layoff and a third-place finish in the Gotham Stakes. He did take advantage of a Blue Grass field with no early speed to take the lead and run at a soft pace. That’s not going to happen on Derby Day, but a different pace scenario shouldn’t sink Highly Motivated’s chances. Trainer Chad Brown also has Crowded Trade in the top 20 of the Derby points standings, and he told Bloodhorse on Tuesday that he would only run one of his colts in the May 1 race, and he hadn’t decided on which just yet. The final decision should come after workouts this weekend. Something would have to go wrong then for Highly Motivated not to be Brown’s pick for Derby Day.

6. Medina Spirit

Last week’s ranking: No. 7

Odds: 14-1

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Jockey: John Velazquez

Pedigree: Protonico — Mongolian Changa by Brilliant Speed

A few weeks ago, it looked like Bob Baffert was loaded with talent as he sought his record seventh Kentucky Derby victory. Now, might Medina Spirit be his best chance at the winner’s circle? Following the injury to early Derby favorite Life Is Good and the defeat of Concert Tour on Saturday, eyes turn back to Santa Anita Derby runner-up Medina Spirit, who is plenty talented but has also won just once in four races this year. He did finish second the other three times — twice to Life Is Good and once to Rock Your World — and there’s no doubting his grit, but he might need to take a considerable step forward to win the Kentucky Derby. At the very least, that never-quit mentality he seems to possess should make him a popular play to hit the board on Derby Day, when even some of the most talented contenders fade in the Churchill Downs stretch. Three-time Derby-winning jockey John Velazquez will stick with Medina Spirit after also riding Florida Derby runner-up Soup and Sandwich last time out.

7. Midnight Bourbon

Last week’s ranking: No. 8

Odds: 25-1

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Jockey: Mike Smith

Pedigree: Tiznow — Catch the Moon by Malibu Moon

An intriguing colt who might end up with relatively long odds on the Kentucky Derby board, Midnight Bourbon comes to Churchill Downs off a consistent-but-not-spectacular prep season in New Orleans, where he finished no worse than third and was beaten no more than 2 lengths in any of the three Fair Grounds preps, winning the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes and ending up second behind Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby. His speed numbers put him well into the top half of the Derby field, and he’s likely to be near the pace in the early going. A possible game-changer: Midnight Bourbon picks up Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who was on early Derby favorite Life Is Good before that colt’s injury and replaces Joe Talamo for the May 1 race. Midnight Bourbon has worked over the Churchill Downs track each of the past two weekends, including a bullet 5-furlong workout (in 1:00.40) there Sunday.

8. Concert Tour

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Odds: 12-1

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Jockey: Joel Rosario

Pedigree: Street Sense — Purse Strings by Tapit

How far to drop Concert Tour after Saturday’s third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby? That’s the question. This seems a fair spot for the former No. 1-ranked contender. It wasn’t that Concert Tour was bad at Oaklawn Park — where he had romped in the Rebel Stakes just four weeks earlier — but the way he lost the Arkansas Derby was far from encouraging. In the Rebel, he was able to go straight to the lead and throw Caddo River, who wanted to go with him, off his game. In the Arkansas Derby, Caddo River was allowed to run free from the get-go, with Concert Tour sticking right to his outside. That should have been a fine scenario for the favorite, but it didn’t turn out that way. Concert Tour took the lead early in the stretch — just as he should have as the possible Kentucky Derby favorite many thought he was — and it fell apart from there. Not only did he allow Caddo River to re-pass him in the stretch, but Super Stock was able to edge out from the rail and get by both of those two for the victory. And if the race had been a few strides longer, Get Her Number might’ve passed Concert Tour for third. It just wasn’t anything close to the performance you’d want to see heading into the Kentucky Derby, and it calls into question whether Concert Tour can last in the Churchill Downs stretch without an easy, uncontested lead (something that he won’t get May 1). Even less encouraging was Bob Baffert’s hesitation to say that Concert Tour would definitely run in the Derby in the immediate aftermath of the loss. It clearly wasn’t what Baffert expected to see Saturday.

9. Mandaloun

Last week’s ranking: No. 9

Odds: 18-1

Trainer: Brad Cox

Jockey: Florent Geroux

Pedigree: Into Mischief — Brooch by Empire Maker

It bears repeating: according to Churchill Downs records that date back to 1940, no Kentucky Derby winner has finished worse than fifth in his final prep start. Mandaloun finished sixth as the 6-5 favorite in the Louisiana Derby, and that’s quite a bit of history to overcome. Now that we’ve got that out of the way … the son of Into Mischief has been training well at Churchill Downs for trainer Brad Cox, who never came up with a valid excuse for the Louisiana Derby dud and is focused on getting Mandaloun back in gear for Derby Day. Mandaloun turned in a bullet workout at Churchill on Saturday, going 5 furlongs in :58.80, and there never seemed to be much doubt on Cox’s end that he would still be entered May 1 despite that Louisiana Derby run. Maybe it was just a bad day. An interesting note: Mandaloun was a big mover in the William Hill futures odds over the course of the week, going from 30-1 to 18-1.

10. O Besos

Last week’s ranking: N/A

Odds: 125-1

Trainer: Greg Foley

Jockey: Marcelino Pedroza

Pedigree: Orb — Snuggs and Kisses by Soto

This colt was left off of earlier editions of the top-10 rankings due to the assumption that he wouldn’t have enough qualifying points to make the Derby starting gate. Now, after several defections, it looks like the son of 2013 Derby winner Orb might get in after all. O Besos still needs a couple more ahead of him to opt out, but — if he does find a place in the Derby field — it’ll be tough to ignore him. He probably won’t win the race, but O Besos is the type of horse that you have to take a look at in the exotic betting. He was impressive in charging from the back of the Louisiana Derby field to finish third in a race that was more suited for the frontrunners, and he’ll almost certainly get a better pace to run at if he makes the Derby field. O Besos has spent the past few weeks at Churchill Downs and already has two workouts over the track, including a 5-furlong work in 1:00.60 on Tuesday.

Honorable mention: King Fury

Last week’s ranking: N/A

Odds: No odds yet

Trainer: Kenny McPeek

Jockey: Brian Hernandez Jr.

Pedigree: Curlin — Taris by Flatter

Even with a rash of Derby defections over the past couple of weeks — and likely more to come — it looks like Lexington Stakes winner King Fury will be a long shot to make the May 1 field. That’s a shame, because the ability this colt showed Saturday at Keeneland is awfully intriguing, and the buzz is building at such a rate that he probably wouldn’t even be among the biggest long shots if he did make the Derby starting gate. In his first start of 2021 — after a 4 ½-month layoff — King Fury came from the back of the pack to win the Lexington Stakes by more than 2 lengths. It wasn’t the greatest field of 3-year-olds, but the run was visually impressive, and the speed figures backed it up. (His 95 Beyer was higher than the winners of the Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby and Wood Memorial). McPeek said the son of Curlin would be suited for the extra Derby distance and immediately declared his intentions for the Derby, if he could get in. He probably won’t. Going into Thursday morning, King Fury effectively sits 24th on the Derby points board, and — while at least a couple of the horses in front of him are likely to drop out — it’s not anticipated that there will be enough defections to get him into the Derby. If he doesn’t make the May 1 race, McPeek has already said he’ll run in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.

Other Kentucky Derby contenders

Super Stock (32-1 on the William Hill odds sheet) announced his presence on the trail with a victory in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, giving Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen — holder of the dubious record of most Kentucky Derby starts without a victory (he’s 0-for-21) — another horse in this year’s race to go along with Midnight Bourbon. Super Stock was previously fourth in the Rebel Stakes and won for just the second time in eight career starts. Last year, the son of Dialed in finished second to King Fury, third behind Essential Quality and third behind Midnight Bourbon in three 2-year-old races in Kentucky. He arrives in Louisville this week.

Caddo River (75-1) earned some redemption for his Rebel Stakes dud by turning the tables on Concert Tour and finishing second in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday. The son of Hard Spun arrived in Louisville on Tuesday and — despite a relatively disappointing ending to the prep season — will start in the Kentucky Derby, as long as he’s healthy.

Jeff Ruby Steaks winner Like the King (85-1) worked over the Keeneland turf Saturday under Derby jockey Drayden Van Dyke and will have two workouts over the dirt between now and Derby Day.

Sainthood (75-1) — the Jeff Ruby Steaks runner-up — arrived in Louisville this week with the rest of Todd Pletcher’s Derby entries. The two-time Derby-winning trainer will have four starters this year. Sainthood — a son of Mshawish — was coming strong at the end despite a terrible trip in the Jeff Ruby, which was just his third career start. He worked over the Keeneland dirt last Friday before shipping to Churchill Downs a couple days later.

Sticking with the 2021 edition of the “Todd Squad,” the long-shot 1-2 finishers in the Wood Memorial — Bourbonic (70-1) and Dynamic One (45-1) — are also in Louisville. Jose Ortiz will ride Dynamic One in the Derby, and Kendrick Carmouche will be back aboard Bourbonic.

Tampa Bay Derby winner Helium (45-1) continues to train up to May 1 off what will be a lengthy layoff of eight weeks for trainer Mark Casse. The son of Ironicus worked at Churchill Downs for the first time Saturday morning, going 5 furlongs in :59.20, the fourth-fastest of 28 workouts at the distance that day.

Casse also trains Florida Derby runner-up Soup and Sandwich (32-1), who picked up Churchill Downs master Tyler Gaffalione for the Kentucky Derby after John Velazquez decided to stick with Bob Baffert and Medina Spirit. The son of Into Mischief worked 4 furlongs in :48.80 at Churchill on Sunday.

UAE Derby runner-up Panadol will not run in the Kentucky Derby despite being in the top 20 in points, Churchill Downs announced Thursday morning.

It sounds like Wood Memorial third-place finisher Crowded Trade (125-1) will head to the Preakness Stakes for trainer Chad Brown despite having enough Derby points to make the field.

El Camino Real Derby winner Rombauer (75-1) has enough Derby points after his third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes, and trainer Michael McCarthy hasn’t indicated that the son of Twirling Candy won’t be in the Derby field. The closer will get plenty of pace to run at on May 1 and should like the added distance.

Hidden Stash (125-1) was fourth in the Blue Grass for trainer Victoria Oliver and is now safely in the Derby top 20. The son of Constitution was second in the Tampa Bay Derby and turned in a bullet workout — 4 furlongs in :47.80 — at Keeneland on Wednesday morning. Hidden Stash is scheduled to work at Keeneland again next weekend and will ship to Churchill Downs the Tuesday before the Derby.

Dream Shake (125-1) will move to the 20th spot after Chad Brown decides which of his horses to pull from Derby consideration. The third-place finisher in the Santa Anita Derby put up a 96 Beyer in his career debut Feb. 7 for trainer Peter Eurton and hasn’t been ruled out of Kentucky Derby consideration.

Get Her Number (125-1) and Hozier (no odds listed) were fourth and sixth in the six-horse Arkansas Derby, respectively, and will be 22nd and 23rd, respectively, in Derby points after Brown makes a decision. It’s highly unlikely that Bob Baffert would run Hozier back in the Kentucky Derby, though Get Her Number could be an intriguing long shot for trainer Peter Miller. The son of Dialed in was running at the end Saturday and finished just 3 lengths behind Super Stock.

Final decisions on Kentucky Derby entries must be made by Tuesday, April 27.

2021 Kentucky Derby

When: May 1, 6:57 p.m.

Where: Churchill Downs

TV: NBC-18

Purse: $3 million

Distance: 1 1/4 miles

For: 3-year-old Thoroughbreds