By Paul Bergeron
You can look at the stopwatch or you can look at the horse. Lately, consensus favorite Essential Quality has not looked too strong on the workout trail.
His ferocious effort in the Blue Grass might have set the undefeated horse back.
The best thing you can see when a horse is doing his workouts is for the horse to “want more” once the rider stops asking him. But it appears that Essential Quality is ready to stop as soon as the rider stops driving him. Some say he looks tired.
This doesn’t sound like a horse who will move forward in the Derby. Essential Quality has won, but he hasn’t delivered a big race yet. He will still likely be the favorite.
Renowned sports betting wagerer Mattress Mack of Houston furniture store fame said this week that on Saturday, he’ll be making the largest single wager in Kentucky Derby history, betting the favorite. “Maybe $3 million, maybe $4 million,” Mack said.
Following are the top contenders for the 2021 Kentucky Derby, to be run May 1.
1 Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill/Leandro Mora) LW: 2
Horse Racing Nation editor Brian Zipse was early with his Kentucky Derby wager and laid out a strong case for Hot Rod Charlie:
“He has strong tactical speed to find a good position early in the race, and he can pass horses. He has a strong foundation, with plenty of solid 2-year-old form. Given six weeks, he comes into the big race relatively fresh and ready to fire his absolute best.”
2 Rock Your World (John Sadler) LW: 3
Rock Your World is the only entrant who has run a 100 Beyer Speed Figure. Typically, a triple-digit Beyer is a strong barometer for Kentucky Derby champions. Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit each have 99s on their resumes.
3 Essential Quality (Brad Cox) LW: 1
If you listen to the Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch on the April 24 clocker’s report on YouTube, you’ll hear that Essential Quality, for the second workout in a row, appeared tired. “There was not a lot of oomph in the gallop out,” he said. That’s not a good sign for a rigorous race like the Kentucky Derby.
4 Known Agenda (Pletcher) LW: 4
Irad Ortiz Jr. is considered by many to be the best jockey in America right now, and he’ll be aboard Known Agenda. Ortiz has won three consecutive Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey, and he leads all riders in wins in 2021 by a wide margin. His best finish in the Kentucky Derby was in 2019 with Improbable, placing fourth.
5 Mandaloun (Brad Cox) LW: 5
“He deserves the right to run as long as he’s doing well, and he’s doing fantastic,” Brad Cox said Friday. “He’s definitely the question mark in the field as to if he’s going to show up. If he does, he’s a contender. If he runs the Louisiana Derby race, he’s not.”
6 Highly Motivated (Chad Brown) LW: 6
A strong argument can be made that the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland was this year’s top Kentucky Derby prep race. It was certainly the deepest, as its winner, Essential Quality, will be the morning line favorite. Highly Motivated might not prove to welcome a mile and a quarter, but he is very talented. Rombauer ran a distant third, and Hidden Stash took fourth. The fifth through seventh finishers all were prior stakes winners.
7 Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert) LW: 7
“I think we’re here with a horse that’s in the top 10,” Bob Baffert said of Medina Spirit. “I usually like to come in with a top five-type horse. He’s top 10. He shows up every time. He’s run second to some really nice horses. He’s doing well over this track.”
8 Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen) LW: 8
Midnight Bourbon came into Derby Week having gone six weeks between starts, so Steve Asmussen gave his Louisiana Derby runner-up a little stiffer drill than normal, sending him five-eighths from the half in 24.95 seconds, 49.75 and 1:02.64 before having him gallop out six furlongs in 1:16.95.
9 Helium (Mark Casse) LW: 9
Jockey Julian Leparoux has never finished in the money in the Kentucky Derby in his 12 career Derby starts (his best was fourth in 2017 on Classic Empire). He has overperformed with double-digit long shots: At odds of 27.50-to-1, he finished sixth last year with Storm the Court; in 2019, he finished sixth on 58.60-to-1 shot Master Fencer.
10 Super Stock (Steve Asmussen) LW: 10
Steve Asmussen began the week with 9,299 victories, putting him within 146 of Dale Baird’s all-time record. He’s winless with 21 starters over 14 Derbies. Super Stock enters with just a three-week layoff (four or more weeks is more common). “The horse is very strong,” Asmussen said.
11 Like the King (Wesley Ward) LW: 11
On Saturday, Like the King is looking for his first win on dirt and Wesley Ward is looking for his first Kentucky Derby win. This is Ward’s first entry as well. Here’s what gives them hope of capturing that glory: Several Kentucky Derby winners raced on various surfaces before succeeding on the dirt at Churchill Downs. Barbaro won his first three starts on turf, including two stakes, before moving to dirt to prepare for the 2006 Derby. Big Brown, a dual classic winner in 2008, won on turf as a juvenile in his debut. The 2009 upset Derby winner, Mine That Bird, won three stakes on Woodbine’s synthetic as a juvenile. Animal Kingdom successfully raced on turf and used a win in the 2011 Spiral Stakes on synthetic as a springboard to his Derby victory.
12 Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse) LW: 12
At age 26, Tyler Gaffalione is the youngest jockey in the Kentucky Derby. He has a Triple Crown win to his credit, winning the 2019 Preakness Stakes aboard War of Will.
Next Four in the Running: King Fury, Hidden Stash, Dynamic One, Brooklyn Strong