Brad Cox was mighty relieved when favorite Essential Quality was allocated gate 14 at Churchill Downs for Saturday’s 2021 Kentucky Derby. There was a strong chance that his star trainee would be starting from the dreaded inside gate at one point during the draw on Tuesday morning. No horse has won the Run for the Roses from that position since 1986.
Owned by Godolphin, this talented son of Tapit is half the price of his closest rival in the Kentucky Derby betting at 2/1. Essential Quality has so far lived up to his name and comes into the race unbeaten. He scored in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November and was last seen winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 3 under his regular jockey, Luis Saez. He had traffic issues at the start and showed his determination to overcome a troubled passage and beat Chad Brown’s Highly Motivated by a neck.
Essential Quality’s previous four length victory in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park at the end of February was much easier. He usually races mid pack and is unlikely to be ridden more prominently at Churchill Downs, especially as he will be encountering the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter for the first time.
Saez has form in the race, crossing the wire first in 2019 on Maximum Security but was relegated to last place 20 minutes later for causing interference round the far turn. His colt spooked slightly and veered out of his lane but was rapidly corrected by Saez. Many felt that the judgement was harsh, Saez deserves a change in fortune.
John Sadler’s Rock Your World is drawn alongside Essential Quality in gate 15 and is thought likely to challenge him as the second favorite at 5/1. This son of Candy Ride owned by Hronis Racing and David Talla is also on a winning run, most recently taking the Santa Anita Derby. It was his debut on dirt but he beat Bob Baffert’s more popular Medina Spirit four lengths under Joel Rosario. Drawn in stall two on that day, Sadler suggested he should make the pace but Rosario will have a wider choice of options on Saturday.
Rosario won this race in 2013 on Claude McGaughey’s Orb. Sadler has only had four runners in total and is entitled to expect an improvement on his best result to date, he sent out Corby who was sixth in 1993.
Hot Rod Charlie has been supported by bettors at 8/1 and they should be pleased with his starting point of gate nine. His trainer Doug O’Neill knows how to ready a colt for the Kentucky Derby, taking it in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and in 2016 with Nyquist. This son of Oxbow out of an Indian Charlie mare was beaten less than a length by Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, finishing second having been sent off at 100/1.
Hot Rod Charlie has since finished third, a neck behind Medina Spirit in a grade 3 at Santa Anita at the end of January and won the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in late March. Steve Asmussen’s Midnight Bourbon took second, two lengths behind him and was very closely followed by O Besos. Midnight Bourbon starts from gate 10 whilst Greg Foley’s O Besos drew stall eight, they are not expected to reverse the placings with Hot Rod Charlie and are both 20/1 shots.
Many bettors are hoping that Todd Pletcher’s Known Agenda can overcome the disadvantages associated with gate one. This son of Curlin owned and bred by St Elias Stables was last seen winning the Florida Derby impressively under Irad Ortiz. He raced mid pack on the rail in the field of 11 and angled out to take the lead going into the stretch and won by almost three lengths. The style of that victory suggests that stamina should not be an issue for him over this distance but traffic problems could compromise his chances from this gate.
Highly Motivated was not far behind Essential Quality in the Blue Grass and has been allocated stall 17. Bred and owned by Klaravich Stable, this son of the top sire Into Mischief is open to further improvement and is a 10/1 shot.
Baffert’s Concert Tour was the Kentucky Derby favorite before he was beaten by the Steve Asmussen-trained Super Stock in the Arkansas Derby. The decision was taken to point Concert Tour at the Preakness rather than the Run for the Roses after his defeat.
Super Stock has that top level win to his name but scored in a race that was run at such a frenetic pace that it ruined the chances of the market leaders who set it. This son of Dialed In was previously well beaten by Concert Tour in the Rebel Stakes, finishing fourth beaten over six lengths. He is a long shot at Churchill Downs for understandable reasons.
Having redirected Concert Tour, Baffert now relies on Medina Spirit. At 16/1 this son of Protonico is much less popular than his trainer’s original contender, Life Is Good, who left his rivals for dead in the San Felipe Stakes but is recovering from having a bone chip removed from his ankle. Medina Spirit finished eight lengths behind him to take second.
Baffert has won many major races with second and third choice horses from his barn including this one with Authentic last year. Medina Spirit has been lucky in the draw with gate eight and will be ridden by John Velazquez but does not have the profile of Baffert’s other Kentucky Derby winners, Justify (2018), American Pharaoh (2015), War Emblem (2002), Real Quiet (1998) and Silver Charm (1997).
In contrast Cox has never saddled a Kentucky Derby contender and joked that he would have shed tears if Essential Quality had been drawn on the inside. He not only has the favorite but Mandaloun, a 15/1 shot owned bred by Juddmonte who will break from stall seven under Florent Geroux. This son of Into Mischief won the Risen Star at Fair Grounds when blinkers were tried for the first time but most recently disappointed in the Louisiana Derby. Mandaloun started as the 13/10 favorite but was beaten 12 lengths into sixth by Hot Rod Charlie.
Pletcher won this race in 2017 with Always Dreaming and with Super Saver in 2010. He saddles Dynamic One, Bourbonic and Sainthood as well as Known Agenda. If the inside gate statistics prove correct there could be a new trainer’s name on the list of Kentucky Derby winning handlers.