Kentucky Derby Contenders 2021: The Prep Road Travelled

Our weekly Top 10 Kentucky Derby Contenders List reaches a climax, as the Prep Races come to an end. No more KYD147 Points are available! See who made J.N. Campbell's list, and read his analysis below.
Our weekly Top 10 Kentucky Derby Contenders List reaches a climax, as the Prep Races come to an end. No more KYD147 Points are available! See who made J.N. Campbell's list, and read his analysis below.

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Welcome to the 20th edition of our weekly HorseRacing.net Top Ten Rankings for the 2021 “Run for the Roses”—The Kentucky Derby. Each week, Turfwriter J.N., Lead Handicapper Sean, and Editor Neil will rank our current Top Ten Thoroughbreds.

The Prep Trail has officially ended, and there are no more “Points” to be given. With less than 3 weeks left before the “The First Saturday in May,” it is time to take stock of who is “in,” “out,” or “on the bubble.” Debate will continue to ensue as we turn to the workout watch, looking for clues as to who is ready to step-up to the Derby distance of 1 ¼. It is going to be a rousing time!

Follow us over the next few weeks as we cover all angles leading to the Kentucky Derby Weekend! Previews, handicapping, and features are all headed your way!

See who we like below . . .

Kentucky Derby 2021 Contenders
  • Position
  • J.N.
  • Neil
  • Sean

Position

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Last Updated:

J.N.

  • Essential Quality
  • Hot Rod Charlie
  • Known Agenda
  • Highly Motivated
  • Rock Your World
  • Super Stock
  • Midnight Bourbon
  • Concert Tour
  • Medina Spirit
  • Mandaloun
  • 13 April 2021

Neil

  • Essential Quality
  • Hot Rod Charlie
  • Highly Motivated
  • Known Agenda
  • Medina Spirit
  • Rock Your World
  • Super Stock
  • Soup and Sandwich
  • Greatest Honour
  • Concert Tour
  • 13 April 2021

Sean

  • Hot Rod Charlie
  • Medina Spirit
  • Essential Quality
  • Rock Your World
  • Highly Motivated
  • Dream Shake
  • Concert Tour
  • Known Agenda
  • Midnight Bourbon
  • Mandaloun
  • 13 April 2021

Kentucky Derby 2021 Contenders

#1 ESSENTIAL QUALITY (140pts): Here is the top Kentucky Derby contender... in my opinion. Brad Cox’s undefeated Tapit colt shined brightly when he scored off the bench in the slop of the Southwest Stakes (G3) @OP. He then shipped into Keeneland, his home turf, and to many, was almost bested by Chad Brown’s Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2). I don’t look at that performance that way. It was quite the opposite. “EQ” with regular rider Luis Saez aboard tracked the flier, and steadily reeled him in. There could not be a greater challenge on dirt. Cox has made all the right moves with this Godolphin homebred, and I would expect him to be “ready” to work well at Churchill. That is a track he already has a win on. Is there anything this colt cannot do? Not bad for a trainer who has never even entered a runner in the Derby. So many storylines developing here with Saez (hot as ever after Dubai), Godolphin (never won the Derby), and Cox (hometown guy dreaming of winning America’s signature race). They can do it. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#2 HOT ROD CHARLIE (110pts): In the Louisiana Derby (G2), Hot Rod Charlie, ridden aggressively by Joel Rosario, bullied his way to the lead. He never looked back, setting a track record. Taking the trio of “FG runbackers” (Mandaloun/Proxy/Midnight Bourbon) to task, showed his ability. His frontend speed will be a Derby asset, if past precedent is to be applied. Those young colts that can serve as a target have a much higher percentage of winning, since coming from behind is so difficult on dirt. The Derby Points System also does not promote young speedsters drawing in like they used to… so pros like Hot Rod should have the chance to succeed. Doug O’Neill has yet another exciting entry for the Derby, and the conditioner has confirmed that Churchill will be his next destination. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#3 KNOWN AGENDA (102pts): Todd Pletcher’s colt appeared best in the Florida Derby, especially up against the heavily favored Shug McGaughey runner, Greatest Honour. That one is now out for the Derby, and maybe beyond. Still, it was a major win for Pletcher, who now has at least 3 entries for the Starting Gate at Churchill. There is no doubt that the late-gunning speed that this son of Curlin exhibited was something that could be an asset come Derby Day. This power entry now has his ticket booked, and a at least one S. Florida work under his belt. Funny, this could end up being the greatest horse owned by the accomplished St. Elias Stable. Pletcher is high on his ability, and his rise speaks to this soon-to-be HOF trainer’s ability. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#4 HIGHLY MOTIVATED (50pts): All of a sudden, Chad Brown’s entries for the Derby flipped dramatically. It seemed like this colt, out of the great Tapit (same sire as “EQ”), was downgraded significantly after finishing 3rd in the Gotham Stakes (G3). Brown called an audible, and the celebrated trainer made the decision to ship him to Keeneland for the Blue Grass Stakes (G2). That was a gutsy call considering that Cox’s ace was already declared for the race as of the previous month. Javier Castellano, the choice to ride the Klaravich Stables homebred, took him to the front. Trying to steal the race wasn’t a bad play, but not accomplishing 2-turns, it showed us he didn’t have the late gears to get the job done. This is going to be a noteworthy horse as the year develops. Expect big things from the big red “KS,” as the Trail moves on. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#5 ROCK YOUR WORLD (100pts): He certainly did that in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) for John Sadler and Co. Entering the SAD (G1), there were few “touts” when it came to this colt out of Candy Ride (ARG). Going off at 5/1 was a more than respectable price, especially considering that he had never been on dirt before. His previous 2 races were on the turf—one being the Pasadena Stakes. Winning those should have been an indication that talent was afoot. Against Bob Baffert’s heavily favored Medina Spirit, he performed amazingly well, shooting down the lane and vanquishing his foe. How good this runner will be, depends on his works and his forthcoming efforts. The trouble is, that next one, is the Derby!   NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#6 SUPER STOCK (109pts): HOF trainer Steve Asmussen and his father Keith, celebrated a major win on Saturday, when their colt stormed down the lane in Hot Springs to win the Arkansas Derby (G1). Maybe some saw his prowess, but most were so focused on Concert Tour’s form, that they missed this “wise guy.” The son of Dialed In, the reason for that “miss” was his performance in the Rebel S. (G2) back in March. That was not a poor try, especially considering it was off the shelf. He was a game 4th, which at the time was behind that blowout run by Concert Tour. He clearly got his revenge in the ARK Derby (G1). It will be interesting to see how he responds in the KYD, which is less than 3 weeks away. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#7 MIDNIGHT BOURBON (66pts): Winchell Thoroughbreds have won all sorts of races including the Kentucky Oaks and 2 BC affairs. However, they have never won the Kentucky Derby. Neither has their signature trainer, the HOF-er, Steve Asmussen. The latter has come very close… In 2021, he has the 2nd of a pair of cracking good entries that are headed to the Derby based on the 66 pts. he already has acquired. Midnight Bourbon was excellent in the Lecomte (G3) @FG, which was the 1st Leg of their “Triple Series” that routed through the Risen Star (G2) and the Louisiana Derby (G2). Those last 2 races had mixed results. In the LA Derby (G2), it seemed no one was going to catch Hot Rod Charlie, so a 2nd Place finish was still excellent. Next, the connections will have to wait nearly a month before the next race. It will be the “Big One,” to be sure. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD

#8 CONCERT TOUR (70pts): Bob Baffert has what looks to be a pretty weak hand going into the Derby, after 2 major failures over the past number of weeks. He touted this colt by referencing that his ability reminded him of Justify. Well, even though the Rebel S. (G2) was a resounding victory, clearly the Arkansas Derby (G1) was an utter failure. I do not buy the argument that “he didn’t have to win,” because the “Road to KYD147” is about momentum. You either have it or you do not. Baffert knows this all too well. Here is a runner with major speed figs who can power down the lane with the best of them, that much is certain. As for his connections, being a son of Street Sense, one of the only Derby winners to score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the “Run for the Roses,” he certainly has the bloodlines. If breeders/owners Gary and Mary West can make it back to Churchill Downs after what went down in 2019, then it would be bittersweet, to say the least. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#9 MEDINA SPIRIT (74pts): Here is the other Bob Baffert favorite who clearly was not his best in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Since that Bob Lewis (G3) performance in the stretch @SA, pundits have talked about Medina Spirit as the alternative to Life Is Good. Since LIG was summarily removed from Derby consideration, that put pressure on this Florida-bred to step into his shoes. No question that Medina Spirit has run exceedingly well. As I mentioned before, the head-to-head against LIG in the San Felipe (G2) was not a fair fight, after a troubled start that saw him “taking out” O’Neill’s The Great One. Coming into the SAD (G1) expectations were high—very high. From the start, Medina Spirit looked off, and Rock Your World was the best horse in the end for a reason. I think the way to think about this son of Protonico . . . he is a quality runner, but I don’t think he can really move forward at this point going a 1¼. Baffert is a master at getting them ready, but even this may be too big a task for the HOF conditioner. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD.

#10 MANDALOUN (52pts): The No.2 starter for Brad Cox fell down the ranks, but not out of the Top Ten, since his body of work remains fairly strong. The colt has made some major strides over the past couple of months, especially after a frontend win in the Risen Star (G2). That was a gritty performance, and he really showed his mettle down the lane. Some might say… well, that was “a speed-favoring track that evening” or that was “an easy lead once he got to the rail.” Whatever the case, it was a major win. But over this past weekend in the LA Derby (G2), he slipped and finished down the leaderboard in 6th. That was a failure in a sense, especially with him being well-bet and the favorite. Now, this colt earns that coveted May 1st spot. NEXT: Kentucky Derby (G1) @CD

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I also considered: Brad Cox’s CADDO RIVER (50pts), Wesley Ward's LIKE THE KING (104pts), Todd Pletcher's BOURBONIC (100pts) and DYNAMIC ONE (40pts), James Jerkens’ WEYBURN (60pts), and Mark Casse’s HELIUM (50pts).

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As a member of the turfwriting media, each week, J.N. Campbell will take part in the weekly NTRA Polls. Look for that rundown of his selections each Sunday. Also, join us next week as we toss the Top Ten to handicapper Sean. By then we will have some new perspectives on when and where the next group of hopefuls will be running. Good luck!

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