Rock Your World won his first race on dirt from the front, easily beating the odds-on favorite Medina Spirit in the $750,000 2021 Santa Anita Derby on April 3. He scored by four and a quarter lengths, gaining the necessary 100 points to reserve a stall in the Kentucky Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs.
Trained by John Sadler, Rock Your World came into the race unbeaten after his two runs on turf for the Hronis brothers and Talla Racing. Rock Your World was the 5/1 third favorite, he had questions to answer on the surface although his pedigree screamed out for him to be tried on it as a son of Candy Ride out of an Empire Maker mare. Bred by Ron and Deborah McAnally (Ron was a Hall of Fame trainer), he was purchased by Sadler as a yearling for $650,000 via a bloodstock agent and did not run as a juvenile. The patience of his connections has been rewarded.
It was Umberto Rispoli’s second start on Rock Your World and he rode him positively from stall two, pushing him forwards after he broke well. He was able to grab the rail and the lead going into the first turn. Sadler was originally open minded about tactics but instructed Rispoli to set the pace as soon as the draw was announced. Roman Centurian who was scheduled to start in stall one had been scratched.
Sadler wisely believed that allowing most of the pack to head Rock Your World and waiting to ask him to gallop round them in a sand storm of kickback was unlikely to be a winning strategy, especially for a horse that had only raced on turf.
The turf preparation was unconventional but it worked. The Hronis brothers suggested that it was simply a case of running him in whatever race he could get into and the first opportunity on Jan 1 resulted in a win over six furlongs at Santa Anita. The listed Pasadena run over a mile in at the same track at the end of February was next and his impressive win by over four lengths convinced Sadler that the Santa Anita Derby should be next.
Rock Your World certainly had a more enjoyable experience as a result of Sadler’s strategy, the air he breathed was free of dirt at the head of pack. The long shot Parnelli was also ridden aggressively by Edwin Maldonado and briefly managed to get his head in front on his outside approaching the first turn but Rock Your World eased ahead of him. Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit was urged forward from gate six and raced in third place, three wide under John VeIazquez. The Great One was rushed up too by Abel Cedillo and pursued the leading trio.
Flavien Prat decided to take the shortest route on Peter Neutron’s 9/2 shot Dream Shake and raced on the rail behind the leading quartet with Law Professor on his outside. Rock Your World’s barnmate Back Ring Luck, a 57/1 shot, only had Baffert’s more popular Defunded behind him, held up by Mike Smith.
The running order was largely unchanged as Rock Your World maintained his lead at a generous pace, completing the half mile in 46.11. Going into the second turn Medina Spirit looked ready to make his move. Rock Your World simply turned up the gas and gradually powered away from him. Prat pushed Dream Shake into urgent pursuit mode but could not get anywhere near him and finished third, beaten six and a half lengths. Defunded closed to take fourth ahead of Law Professor and Parnelli who weakened at the quarter pole and finished sixth. Rispoli punched the air and acknowledged the crowd as he crossed the wire in a time of 1 minute 49.17 seconds.
Eased Covid 19 restrictions permitted the presence of over 8,000, making it a much more widely appreciated gesture than has been possible recently. Both trainer and jockey admitted to becoming emotional at the sight of so many people at the track.
Rock Your World is considered by many to be a realistic Run for the Roses contender. He would not be the first colt with turf form to win it, the 2011 victor Animal Kingdom and Barbera (2006) had both run on grass. The Santa Anita Derby has also proved an effective final prep for the Kentucky Derby in the past: 19 other horses that have run in it have gone on to win.
Rock Your World has reportedly come out of the Santa Anita Derby well, eating up and showing no signs of damage. Baffert says that Medina Spirit is in good shape too after his defeat. Baffert’s more popular runner Concert Tour, the Rebel Stakes winner, looks a much bigger threat to Rock Your World’s chances than Medina Spirit. Essential Quality is the favorite in the Kentucky Derby betting at the moment but Sadler stands a good chance of improving his Churchill Downs record. He has trained four big-race participants in the past, the best of them was Corby who finished sixth in 1993. He seems better equipped than ever this time.