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By Anil Mukhi | 01 May 2021 |

Back in its traditional spot of the first Saturday in May is America’s most famous horse race, the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (Gr.1, 10 fur.). To be run at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, the race boasts a full field of 20 three-year-olds, one of which is a gelding and the rest entire colts. It may be recalled that last year the event had to be rescheduled to September, which threw preparations into disarray.

The race, being run for the 147th time, has total prize money this year of $3,000,000, well up on 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic had so drastically affected horse racing and its purses. Starting time is set for 6:57 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (4:27 a.m. IST on Sunday, May 2nd in India). The feature is the 12th of 14 races during the afternoon, so clearly a lot of stamina will be required to go through the card!

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, only some 50,000 spectators will be permitted, a small number when compared with the record of 170,513 that showed up in person in 2015. Still, there enough to make a noise, which many of the contenders have never experienced in this “behind-closed-doors” era. The weather is forecast to be partly cloudy, with a high of around 24 degrees Celsius, with no prospect of rain. The runners, their connections and the expected odds are given in the table below:

PP Horse Name Expected Odds Jockey Trainer
1 Known Agenda 6/1 Irad Ortiz, Jr. Todd Pletcher
2 Like the King 50/1 Drayden Van Dyke Wesley Ward
3 Brooklyn Strong 50/1 Umberto Rispoli Daniel Velazquez
4 Keepmeinmind 50/1 David Cohen Robertino Diodoro
5 Sainthood 50/1 Corey Lanerie Todd Pletcher
6 O Besos 20/1 Marcelino Pedroza Gregory Foley
7 Mandaloun 15/1 Florent Geroux Brad Cox
8 Medina Spirit 15/1 John Velazquez Bob Baffert
9 Hot Rod Charlie 8/1 Flavien Prat Doug O'Neill
10 Midnight Bourbon 20/1 Mike Smith Steve Asmussen
11 Dynamic One 20/1 Jose Ortiz Todd Pletcher
12 Helium 50/1 Julien Leparoux Mark Casse
13 Hidden Stash 50/1 Rafael Bejarano Victoria Oliver
14 Essential Quality 2/1 Luis Saez Brad Cox
15 Rock Your World 5/1 Joel Rosario John Sadler
16 King Fury 20/1 Brian Hernandez, Jr. Kenny McPeek
17 Highly Motivated 10/1 Javier Castellano Chad Brown
18 Super Stock 30/1 Ricardo Santana, Jr. Steve Asmussen
19 Soup And Sandwich 30/1 Tyler Gaffalione Mark Casse
20 Bourbonic 30/1 Kendrick Carmouche Todd Pletcher

In some ways the Kentucky Derby is an anomaly – most of the runners have never run as far as 10 furlongs so there are no prior clues as to stamina – and almost all will never do so again! Staying ability is the key and those that are expected to get the trip include Dynamic One, Essential Quality, Known Agenda and Midnight Bourbon. Others that might prove deficient on this measure are Highly Motivated, Hot Rod Charlie, Mandaloun, O Besos and Super Stock. Which is not to say they cannot win! After all, even in a field of non-stayers, something has to finish first.

Favourites have a good recent record in the race, recording wins from 2013 to 2018 inclusive. Then came that freak result in 2019 which saw rank outsider Country House pay $132.40. Last year’s winner was the third choice in the wagering.

Godolphin’s self-bred Essential Quality, is presently the favourite for the race as he is unbeaten from 5 starts. Easily the best performed runner in the line-up, he won the Gr.1 Claiborne Breeders Futurity and the Gr.1 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 2. The grey showed he had trained on at 3 by recording victories in the Gr.3 Southwest Stakes and most recently the Gr.2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. In the last-named feature, he was given a hard race by Highly Motivated (by Into Mischief) of whom more later. Perhaps the public choice will recompense rider Luis Saez, who guided Maximum Security to an apparent triumph in the Kentucky Derby a couple of years ago, only to see his mount controversially disqualified.

Should the attractive grey colt triumph, he would be the first of that hue to win this race since Giacomo 16 years ago. Essential Quality would also enable Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai to finally achieve his long-held dream of winning the Kentucky Derby. Incidentally, based on a complaint to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission by a group of attorneys, alleging human rights violations on Sheikh Mohammed‘s part, there was a sliver of doubt as to whether entries of runners owned directly or indirectly by him would be accepted in the state. However, the KHRC “has determined the complaint does not articulate a violation of KHRC regulations." So for the moment the Sheikh’s horses are free to run in Kentucky, but one gets the impression that the last has yet to be heard on this matter.

Known Agenda (by Curlin) enters the race off a fluent win in the 9 furlongs Gr.1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in March, where he easily held Soup And Sandwich. Earlier he had won an allowance event on the same track by 11 lengths. He has North America’s leading rider on board in Irad Ortiz, Jr., who has already got 153 wins in the bag in 2021. The property of St. Elias Stable is most definitely a leading contender and can topple the favourite, provided he gets a good start from his inside draw. The addition of blinkers at his last two starts has transformed him.
Mandaloun (by Into Mischief), who has been blazing the track in his workouts, is by the same sire as last year’s winner, Authentic. Successful in the Gr.2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds in February, the Juddmonte Farms home-bred blotted his copybook over half a furlong further in the Gr.2 Louisiana Derby on the same track in March, coming home a dozen lengths behind Hot Rod Charlie (by Oxbow). The last-named, who fetched $110,000 as a yearling, is a half-brother to the speedy Mitole (by Eskendereya) and races in the silks of Roadrunner Racing. Beaten less than a length by Essential Quality (by Tapit) in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, he will probably find the added distance an impediment to his attempt to turn the tables.

Midnight Bourbon (by Tiznow) has “Big Money Mike” Smith in the irons. The rider appears to excel in this prestigious event, having annexed previous editions with Justify in 2018 and 50 to 1 Giacomo in 2005. His mount here won the Gr.3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds but was then defeated twice, once each by Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie, which makes it difficult for anyone to seriously fancy him.

Like the best-fancied runner, Rock Your World (by Candy Ride) is unbeaten. His 3 wins came in a maiden (on turf), a Listed Race (on turf) and finally the Gr.1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, where he toyed with the runner-up, Bob Baffert’s consistent Medina Spirit (by Protonico). Whether California form will translate into a Kentucky Derby victory will only be known after the race. Spendthrift Farm has been impressed enough to snap up the undefeated colt for stud duties. John Sadler schools the dark bay or brown, who will now be ridden by Joel Rosario (who rode Orb to vitory in 2013) with Umberto Rispoli getting “jocked off”. The latter did however manage to secure a mount in the longshot Brooklyn Strong, a New York State-bred gelding who cost just $5,000.

Finally, Highly Motivated (by Into Mischief) has been most consistent, never having finished unplaced. Javier Castellano will be hoping for just enough improvement on his mount’s part to get the job done and thereby help him land his maiden Kentucky Derby triumph. It would also be a “first” for trainer Chad Brown.

In the final analysis, the winner should emerge from the quintet of Essential Quality, Known Agenda, Mandaloun, Highly Motivated and Rock Your World. King Fury has been scratched due to spiking a fever on Friday.