Our Top 10 Kentucky Derby Contenders: Essential Quality Is Tops

Brad Cox's Essential Quality leads J.N. Campbell's list of Top 10 Kentucky Derby Contenders.
Brad Cox's Essential Quality leads J.N. Campbell's list of Top 10 Kentucky Derby Contenders.

Welcome to the second edition of our weekly HorseRacing.net rankings for 2021 Kentucky Derby. Each week, Turfwriter J.N., Handicapper Sean, and Editor Neil will rank our current Top Ten Thoroughbreds. One of us will write an overview of choices and document any changes from the previous week.

This week it is the turn of J.N. Campbell to take us through his top ten in detail.

Join us along the Derby Trail! All of our Top Ten's are below...

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

Position

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  • 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

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#1 Essential Quality: The Tapit colt is 3/3 and that is good enough to top my list of potential Kentucky Derby Contenders. I liked this Godolphin bred and owned runner so much that I was sure he had what it took to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over heavily favored Jackie’s Warrior. Brad Cox? Possibly Luis Saez aboard for the Derby? Sounds like vindication after 2019 for the latter. Cox shipped Essential Quality down to the Fair Grounds for December, and I would expect he will move him to training with the Risen Star (G2) as the intended target. If all goes well, the connections could be well on their way to favoritism in the “Run for the Roses.” Godolphin has won every elite race around the globe from Melbourne to Dubai to Royal Ascot - except the Kentucky Derby. Will this be it?

#2 Fire At Will: I would like to see Mike Maker and his stable vie for Derby glory on the first Saturday in May. He has never won a Triple Crown race, which means he is due. His major wins have primarily originated in the Breeders’ Cup, and his turf racing record is stellar. Fire At Will is part of the latter. His turf pedigree runs through Declaration of War, but I do not see why this runner could not be along the Derby Trail. A $97,000 yearling purchase by Three Diamonds Farm at the 2019 Keeneland September Yearling Sale from the Select Sales consignment, Fire At Will is the first foal from the unplaced Kitten's Joy mare Flirt. He was bred in Kentucky by Troy Rankin. This past fall, he rattled off 3 wins in a row at Saratoga, Belmont, and finally, at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (at 30/1). That last performance makes him a contender. In my mind, Maker should consider dirt options in the spring. Maybe going toe-to-toe with Essential Quality in the Risen Star would be the course.

#3 Keepmeinmind: What a performance by Keepmeinmind at the very track where the Derby races! If he could just bottle that effort from the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) and save it until May. If you watch the replay, you will see something that is tough to do on dirt. Patience and perseverance prevailed, and that kind of experience, when the chips are down, is valuable along the Derby Trail. Trainer Rob Diodoro and jockey David Cohen form a powerful team. I think their combination has the potential to be one of the best in the sport. Are we watching the ascendancy of both to a new stratospheric level? As for the son of hot sire Laoban (progenitor of Simply Ravishing and Laobanonaprayer), I would guess that his next stop is Oaklawn. Maybe a trip through the Rebel (G2) with the endgame being the Arkansas Derby (G1) is in order.

#4 Brooklyn Strong: Brooklyn Strong’s effort under difficult conditions in the Remsen (G2) at Aqueduct for trainer Danny Velazquez was fab last Saturday. His conditioner is trying to get his horse into the record books. Vagrant (1876), Apollo (1882), Macbeth II (1888), Old Rosebud (1914), Exterminator (1918), Paul Jones (1920), Clyde Van Dusen (1929), Funny Cide (2003) and Mine That Bird (2009) are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby. If you did not know, a total of 115 of their type have run at Churchill since 1908. Not the best of records. I have moved this son of Wicked Strong, a Derby Trailer himself, up to 4th in the hopes that Velazquez, who runs a minor stable, will strike gold. The Remsen, at a 1 1/8th, should be the best litmus test this time of year, but few winners have gone on to the Winner’s Circle at Churchill. Stay tuned for where this one lands next. Back to AQU? To Gulfstream? Hmm…

#5 Life Is Good: Are we facing a Kentucky Derby Trail where Bob Baffert is not loaded with a significant stable of runners? Is the Dean of the Derby out of bullets? Foolish question, J.N... I know my compatriots, Neil and Sean, think highly of Life Is Good and with good reason. That was a Justify-esque kind of maiden in his debut @DMR on 22 Nov., but for me, it is not enough to compare that, to say, the dossier of Essential Quality. For a truer comparison, Baffert needs to decide where he will appear next. The Robert B. Lewis (G3) is not till 30 Jan., so finding a spot in between seems in order. If I know Baffert, he has some extra ammo in his pouch that we might not be looking for at this point. Life Is Good will not be the only member of Baffert’s Stable looking to punch his ticket to Louisville. Should be interesting, as always.   

#6 Hot Rod Charlie: Sean thinks highly of this Doug O’Neill trainee, and rightly so, especially after that 2nd place finish behind Essential Quality in the BC Juvenile at odds of 94-1. Tyler Gaffalione almost sprung a giant upset. Now his conditioner has a number of options moving forward, and I would not be surprised if this son of Preakness winner, Oxbow, appeared in Hot Springs. O’Neill is not afraid to ship back East from his base in SoCal. Even though his runner has sprinting on the dam side, he clearly has the game to go longer. The question will be, as Charlie turns 3-yrs-old on 1 Jan., will maturity help or hurt his development. California reps look weak at this stage. Stay tuned…

#7 Jackie's Warrior: One poor performance does not portend what is to come along the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Jackie’s Warrior back in the late summer/early fall did what most have not - win the NYRA 3-yr-old division with 3 major graded wins. Although Steve Amussen’s frontend burner finished 4th to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile @KEE, we still think he has major skill to develop into the new year (hence why he makes all our Top Ten lists). Maclean’s Music is a burgeoning sire, whose breeding reflects the necessary Derby distance of a 1 ¼. Expect the HOF conditioner to have a suitable plan of attack for the spring. No matter where he shows, he will have to be considered a contender to win. Wouldn’t it be something to see him rematch with Cox’s Essential Quality somewhere down the line? How about on May 1st? Is that date open?

#8 Highly Motivated: I decided to move Brooklyn Strong into my Top Ten after that Remsen score, which moved this Thoroughbred, Highly Motivated, down on the list. That bumped King Fury, who I have reconsidered as a contender. I just keep thinking in the back of my mind that it is only a matter of time before the combination of Klaravich Stables and trainer Chad Brown score their first Kentucky Derby victory. They seem to be everywhere with those bright white silks with red lettering. “KS” owns Highly Motivated, and his performance at Keeneland in the newly minted Nyquist Stakes was impressive. The next step will be crucial because it probably means this Into Mischief colt will be stretching out to 1 1/16th. It will not be easy, but whenever and wherever it does, we will be watching.  

#9 Midnight Bourbon: Speaking of connections that work in-sync, Winchell-Asmussen are another owner-trainer alliance that field an amazing effort. I have seen them run at the claiming level to graded stakes, and they bring their best each time. Stonestreet bred Midnight Bourbon, that equates to some nice bloodlines with Tiznow and Catch the Moon. After a 3rd place finish to stablemate and Asmussen star, Jackie’s Warrior in the Champagne (G1) at Belmont, they put him on the bench through November. Now back in training at the Fair Grounds, I would expect him to point to the Risen Star (G2) or maybe even competition at Oaklawn. One to consider based on all these factors. Asmussen once again holds a strong hand.

#10 Reinvestment Risk: After my speech in favor of Klaravich Stables and Chad Brown, I started to think that either I needed to load up on these connections or hedge by offering another. I liked Reinvestment Risk for several reasons this past fall, and it starts with his sire, Into Mischief. Authentic proved the critics wrong when it came to being able to handle major route distances in the Derby and BC Classic. Reinvestment should be no different. Though a 10th place in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile does not look great on paper, I still maintain that this one had a nice fall. That should continue into the spring as Brown knows the Derby Trail like the back of his hand. With lifetime winnings brimming over $100k, I should think he is primed to add to that haul. Maybe re-emerging at Gulfstream Park for the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth is the play. Trust in the red “KS.”

I also considered: Peter Miller’s Get Her Number, winner of the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) @SA, and Dale Romans’ Sittin On Go, winner of Iroquois Stakes (G3) @CD.

Join us next week as we toss the Top Ten to Handicapper Sean. Keep making those lists and checking them twice!

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Kentucky Derby 2021
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