Welcome to the 2021 Kentucky Derby. And welcome back to what a normal Kentucky Derby looks like. Almost.

Rock Your World-Derby Preview
The Kentucky Derby is only Rock Your World’s second start on dirt. He is the fastest horse in the field based on speed figures. (Image: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)

The crowds? Well, they’re back – about 40,000. That’s a quarter of what normally turns Churchill Downs into a sporting bacchanalia. But there’s people in the stands. We’ll take it.

The horses? They’re back, running as 3-year-olds instead of 3 ½-year-olds.  And that’s the important thing, when you break down a Derby. With King Fury’s defection Friday after running a fever, we have 19 horses in the field.

As we return to a “normal” Derby, a few more elements bear mentioning. Or repeating, as the case may be. Again, in the points era, one closer: Orb in 2013, has crossed the finish line first. As good as Known Agenda is – and he’s as good a closer as you’ll see here – his genus is not what wins Derbies.

Press and stalk. That’s what wins Derbies

Speed. Tactical speed, wins Derbies in this era.

Two statistical theories support this. There’s Santa Anita Park morning-line writer and Xpressbet columnist Jon White’s Derby Strike System, specifically category 3 of his eight-category DSS. That illustrated 52 of the last 55 Derby winners led or were second with a furlong to go of their last nine-furlong or nine-plus-furlong prep race.

Then, there’s the Final Fractions Theory (FFT). Former Louisville Courier Journal turf writer Jennie Rees created the FFT. Now a turf publicist, Rees showed that 27 of the last 30 May Derby winners ran the final furlong of their last prep race in 13 seconds or faster, OR ran the last three furlongs in 38 seconds or faster. Do one or the other and you likely are a horse who has enough stamina to handle 1 ¼ miles.

Coffee is for closers. Modern Derbies aren’t

As we break down the field by category, keep in mind it’s usually a closer who sneaks onto the back end of a trifecta or superfecta. Those are the horses, like 46/1 Mr. Big News last year, who find their way into the back end of toteboards with enough odds heft to light those boards up.

OG News breaks down our field for Saturday’s race in categories, worst to first. The listed odds are updated as of Friday, 4:10 p.m. PT.

Why are you here?

  • Keepmeinmind (Post 4-61/1): This late-arriving-to-the-Derby closer comes with a bonus – horrific form. Before Keepmeinmind got into the Derby a week before the race, he opened his 3-year-old campaign forgetting how good he was as a juvenile. After winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, finishing second in the Breeders’ Futurity and third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Keepmeinmind finished a bad sixth in the Rebel Stakes and a worse fifth in the Blue Grass. He finished a combined 18 lengths back in those two 3-year-old races. Keepmeinmind? How about forgetting you on our tickets.
  • Bourbonic (Post 20-37/1): “Bourbonic trailed early, advanced outside and finished well while no threat.” Focus on the last three words of the race notes from his second-place finish at Parx and you understand why Bourbonic is a plague on your tickets. Yes, Bourbonic came out of that second-place finish in an allowance optional claiming race at Triple-A track Parx to win the Wood Memorial at 72/1. He did so in a glacial 1:54.49 for 1 1/8 miles. How glacial? The same day, Rock Your World won the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby in 1:49.17 and Essential Quality took the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass in 1:48.50. Put the three together in this scenario and Bourbonic is still running. “While no threat” neatly sums up Bourbonic’s chances here.
  • Brooklyn Strong (Post 3-63/1): Barely a week ago, this New York-bred gelding was prepping for the Preakness. Then, a Derby exodus of defections put him and his 10 points in the field. After watching his fifth-place finish in that slow Wood Memorial, it’s hard to reconcile this is the same horse that beat Known Agenda by eight lengths in last fall’s Remsen. That Brooklyn Strong went 3-for-4 as a juvenile. This Brooklyn Strong looks overmatched here, even with standout rider Umberto Rispoli making his Derby debut. The four-month layoff means you won’t confuse this New York-bred with last year’s New York-bred star – Derby runner up Tiz the Law.
  • Hidden Stash (Post 13-44/1): One year, a woman trainer will condition a Derby winner. Unfortunately for Vicki Oliver, this is not that year. This closer somehow earned Derby points in all three of his races – without winning or running particularly fast in any of them. He finished fourth in the Blue Grass – 10 lengths behind Essential Quality – after finishing a game second to Helium in a weak Tampa Bay Derby field. Hidden Stash’s career-best 83 Beyer is the slowest in the field and the most impressive thing you can say about this Constitution colt is he beat Known Agenda by three lengths in the Sam F. Davis. It won’t happen again.

2021 Derby dreamers, missing 2021 Derby miracles

  • Like the King (Post 2-69/1): Here’s your Derby favorite — if they ran the Kentucky Derby on plastic instead of dirt. They don’t and Like the King won’t be mistaken for a favorite here. He’s here because he won the 100-point Jeff Ruby Steaks on Turfway Park’s synthetic Tapeta surface in late March. That came after he won an allowance optional claiming race and finished second in the John Battaglia Memorial on Turfway’s synthetic track. But Like the King apparently doesn’t like dirt, since he lost his two dirt starts by 19 ¾ lengths. The stalking son of 2013 Derby pace-setter and Belmont champion Palace Malice has the distance pedigree. He has juvenile trainer-deluxe Wesley Ward, surprisingly making his Derby debut. But that’s not enough to put a crown on Like the King.
  • Helium (Post 12-57/1): Three horses come into this Derby unbeaten. The first two: Essential Quality and Rock Your World, roll off your tongue. Here’s the one you probably didn’t get. Yes, this grandson of 1995 Derby and Belmont winner Thunder Gulch comes into the fray 3-for-3. Perhaps you forgot about Helium because he hasn’t run in eight weeks, or since springing the Tampa Bay Derby upset at 15.40/1. Or perhaps you forgot about him because his top 84 Beyer is 16 points behind Rock Your World’s and 13 behind Essential Quality’s. Perhaps you realized Helium did get pushed out wide in the Tampa Bay Derby. And this sturdy colt can handle the Derby distance. But Helium’s lighter-than-air speed figures suggest waiting for the Belmont and lifting off with him then.
  • Sainthood (Post 5-47/1): Say hello to the youngest 3-year-old in the Derby, a May foal who went unraced as a 2-year-old. Perhaps that explains why he’s one of the most tenacious horses in the field. Perhaps that explains why he refused to submit to traffic during the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks and fought from sixth at the three-quarter pole to second – losing by only a length. And perhaps that explains his maiden-breaker at Fair Grounds, when he lost the lead, then regained it to prevail by a nose. Make no mistake, Sainthood, his modest speed figures and unproven class won’t be canonized with roses. But if O Besos isn’t your upstart Jesus’ Team or Mr. Big News of 2021, why not him?

Nice stories, nice connections, not nice chances

  • Dynamic One (Post 11-51/1): One of trainer Todd Pletcher’s Derby foursome, this stalker showed versatility with a closing kick that failed to hold off 72/1 stablemate Bourbonic in the Wood Memorial. Yet where Bourbonic gets dismissed for winning the slowest Wood Memorial since the race became 1 1/8 miles in 1952, Dynamic One gets props for finishing second at 15/1. That’s because this son of 2012 Belmont winner Union Rags proved he’s not a freak by winning a March nine-furlong maiden race at Aqueduct. And he finished second to former top Derby prospect Greatest Honour by only 1 ½ lengths in a December maiden special weight at Gulfstream. So the form and class is there. The modest speed, however, doesn’t make Dynamic One a dynamic threat for anything above your trifectas here.
  • Soup and Sandwich (Post 19-35/1): Admit it. The name of this lightly raced Into Mischief progeny not only makes you hungry, it makes you hungry to get a bet down on him. You’ll have plenty of company. Owned by Charlotte Weber, the granddaughter of Campbell’s Soup founder John Dorrance, Soup and Sandwich took a bite of every race he’s entered this year, going 2-1-0 in his three starts. Last out, this pace-presser finished a gutsy second at 12/1 to Known Agenda in the Florida Derby. That punched his Derby ticket. What’s going to punch bettors in the stomach is Soup and Sandwich’s outside post, requiring him to break hard inside for position against the other speed horses in the field. Horses like Rock Your World, Medina Spirit, Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie who have more speed. What will he have left on the plate? This is not a recipe for satisfying your Derby wagering hunger pangs.
  • Super Stock (Post 18-50/1): Usually horseplayers take the Arkansas Derby winner more seriously. And perhaps they would have, had Bob Baffert’s Concert Tour done what he was supposed to do and win that top-level prep. Instead, you have 12/1 Super Stock smashing and grabbing it – along with a Derby berth. When it comes the definition of “perfect trip,” Super Stock’s Arkansas Derby victory provides Exhibit A. He played his stalker/closer role perfectly, blowing past Concert Tour and Caddo River in deep stretch. There’s zero chance this dream trip repeats itself in a 19-horse Derby. His hybrid stalker/closer style runs into better horses of both styles who stalk better (see Essential Quality, Highly Motivated, Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit) and close better (see Known Agenda, O Besos). Super Stock’s co-owner is Erv Woolsey, the manager for country star George Strait. Expect Super Stock and rider Ricardo Santana Jr. to “Give it All We Got Tonight”. But no “King of the Mountain” finish awaits.

Exotic possibilities, exotic probabilities

  • O Besos (Post 6-52/1): The name of this offspring of 2013 Derby winner Orb translates into “Or kisses.” And this deep closer is getting more love and affection than any long shot or closer in the field not named Known Agenda. Why? Well, O Besos has a faster career Beyer than Known Agenda (96-94). That 96 Beyer came after O Besos clocked Beyers of 60, 77, 83, and 88 in his previous four starts. Nobody in the field has this kind of upward speed trajectory. O Besos finished third by a head to Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon in the Louisiana Derby and the latter was literally saved by the wire for second. Make no mistake, O Besos likely won’t win. But having him on your exotic tickets and watching him fill a trifecta at lofty odds will make you fall in love again.
  • Mandaloun (Post 7-44/1): Say “hello” to the Derby wild card, who went from the front rank of Derby contenders to simply rank in his last outing. And it’s that sixth-place disappearance as the 6/5 Louisiana Derby favorite that scrambled everyone’s eggs here. Even trainer Brad Cox remains puzzled about what happened. It’s hard to draw the proverbial line through a clinker like that. Even for a horse with a 98 career-best Beyer, three wins in five starts and good training outings since. Mandaloun has been favored in all five starts. That ends here, but this Into Mischief offspring could offer attractive down-ticket odds if you think the Louisiana Derby was an outlier.
  • Midnight Bourbon (Post 10-18/1): As of Friday, Steve Asmussen owns 9,306 career training victories. None of those 9,306 are Kentucky Derbies, which is an enduring storyline every time Asmussen takes one of his horses to Churchill Downs. It’s apt that a grinder like Asmussen brings a grinder like Midnight Bourbon to this year’s proceedings. Midnight Bourbon hasn’t missed the board in seven starts (2-2-3). He finished in the money in all three Fair Grounds Derby preps, wiring the Lecomte in January, finishing third in the Risen Star to Mandaloun, then second to Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby. With two-time Derby winner “Big Money” Mike Smith in the irons, this consistent pace-presser will be in the mix early. He should be in the mix late. Unfortunately for Asmussen, alas, Midnight Bourbon is likely a notch below the prime contenders. Turn his Derby frustration and Midnight Bourbon’s consistency into trifecta or superfecta profits for you.
Medina Spirit-Derby preview
It’s odd to see. But Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s lone Kentucky Derby entry is Medina Spirit. (Image: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)
  • Medina Spirit (Post 8-17/1): And then, there was one. With this $35,000 Protonico offspring, you’re looking at Bob Baffert’s lone hope for that record seventh Derby victory. Not what anyone expected when Life Is Good and Concert Tour were destroying fields from California to Arkansas. Even through that, Medina Spirit put his head down and plugged away. He came closer than anyone to beating Life Is Good, finishing a head behind his stablemate in January’s Sham Stakes. He refused to let Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie by in the Robert B. Lewis. And he finished second in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. Like Midnight Bourbon and Sainthood, Medina Spirit never mails in a race. Like Midnight Bourbon, he’ll provide early speed. But like those other two, Medina Spirit is better underneath than atop your tickets. Distance issues keep him from jumping to the next echelon.

Value, talent … and possibilities

  • Known Agenda (Post 1-18/1): If you’re going to be one of the front-row Derby contenders and if you’re going to be a closer, you might as well be on the new, improved 20-stall rail. That’s the consolation Todd Pletcher takes from his Derby star’s unlucky post draw. Even with that, this son of Curlin reigns dangerous with any kind of daylight. Especially with Irad Ortiz Jr. at the controls. There’s a reason Mike Battaglia made him the third favorite behind Essential Quality and Rock Your World. After Pletcher added blinkers, Known Agenda showed it with his 11-length dissection of a February Gulfstream Park allowance. Then came his surgical 2 ¾-length, traffic-navigating victory in the Florida Derby. Known Agenda’s 112 Equibase is the top figure in the field. But because of that rail post, his Derby fate rests more on Ortiz’s early navigational skills in cascading traffic than Known Agenda’s considerable running skills.
Highly Motivated-Derby preview
Highly Motivated may be the best value play in the field. He’s trying to give trainer Chad Brown and jockey Javier Castellano their first Derby victories. (Image: Churchill Downs/Coady Photography)
  • Highly Motivated (Post 17-18-1): As much disdain as the rail post gets, horses have won Derbies from post 1. The same can’t be said from Highly Motivated’s starting post, which is 0-for-41. That hasn’t stopped bettors from plunging forth on one of the biggest value horses in the field. They do so with visions of competitive speed figures: a 97 Beyer and 102 Brisnet (tied for tops in the field). And the image of his Blue Grass Stakes neck loss to Essential Quality. Post aside, you need little motivation to put Highly Motivated on your tickets – especially anywhere near double-digit odds. The decisions for trainer Chad Brown and jockey Javier Castellano – both seeking their first Derby victory – is when to turn that speed loose. Early, in an effort to get inside position early and steal the race, or (more likely) late in a stalker’s role.

It won’t surprise you at all

  • Hot Rod Charlie (Post 9-8/1): Trainer Doug O’Neill needs little prodding to talk up any of his charges. But mention this son of 2013 Preakness champion Oxbow and O’Neill can’t stop gushing. But the chatty O Neill’s been there before, unlike Hot Rod Charlie’s eclectic ownership group. That group: California businessman Greg Helm and his partners, five former members of the Brown University football team and ProFlowers founder Bill Strauss, is on the ride of their lives. All courtesy of a versatile, dynamic colt who can run on the lead, off the pace or stalking. Hot Rod Charlie took Essential Quality to the mat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, lost that Lewis photo to Medina Spirit, then blitzed the Louisiana Derby field. With Flavien Prat at the reins, the second-fastest Beyer (99) and triple-figure Brisnet and Equibases, Hot Rod Charlie could give O’Neill his third Derby, Prat his second and his owners their first.
  • Essential Quality (Post 14-Even): Trainer Brad Cox is in danger of winning America’s most important race in his first try. He’s in peril of being the first Louisville native to win the Run for the Roses. And he’s in danger of training owner/breeder colossus Godolphin’s first Derby champion. All because of this Champion 2-year-old turned rock-star 3-year-old. There is nothing deserving race favorite Essential Quality has done wrong in five races. He’s won on sloppy tracks and fast tracks. He’s won from near the front, midpack and from well off the pace. He’s beaten five other horses of varying odds in this field: Hot Rod Charlie, Highly Motivated, Super Stock, Keepmeinmind and Hidden Stash. His versatile running style, speed figures (a 97 Beyer, 102 Brisnet, 109 Equibase), class (four graded stakes wins, two Grade 1s), pedigree (a Tapit son) all fit the profile of a modern Derby champion. You can’t go wrong with him on your tickets. You can go wrong with the lack of value vis-à-vis our pick. Thanks for torpedoing his odds, Mattress Mack. Often, this is where you draw the line between contenders.

The pick

  • Rock Your World (Post 15-9/2): As we are wont to do, let’s get Rock Your World’s flaws out of the way. He easily could get sucked into a speed duel with Highly Motivated, Medina Spirit, Soup and Sandwich and Midnight Bourbon. His inexperience (three races) could factor. He could bounce out of his Santa Anita Derby romp into an off-the-board finish. Or a meteor could hit Churchill Downs. Now, let’s pick those off one by one. 1) Joel Rosario can take this Candy Ride progeny out, but he’s too smart to push the gas too early. He’ll likely sit off the pace and pounce 2) Justify proved three years ago you can win a Derby as a lightly-raced 3-year-old. 3) Rock Your World could bounce, yes. But he has the speed and pedigree to handle 10 furlongs. 4) Meteors are not in Saturday’s Louisville forecast. This is the fastest horse in the field. This is a horse in form. And this is a horse that checks just about every box a modern Derby champion needs checked: Speed (a field-best 100 Beyer), prep race (Santa Anita Derby) and running style (presser/stalker). Hot Rod Charlie nearly got Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Highly Motivated nearly got him in the Blue Grass. Rock Your World gets him here.