The Derby Contenders List: Midnight Bourbon Cracks the Top Ten

Our weekly Kentucky Derby Rankings are out! See who is moving up and down in the polls, as the Prep Schedule begins to take shape!
Our weekly Kentucky Derby Rankings are out! See who is moving up and down in the polls, as the Prep Schedule begins to take shape!

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Welcome to the Eighth Edition of our weekly HorseRacing.net 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. One of us will write an overview of choices, and changes that we see from the previous week.

This week’s list is interesting because although the number of “preps” has not hit us full tilt, there are some horses coming out of the Lecomte (G3) @FG that might impact your own lists. The next race with Debry Point implications is this Friday at Oaklawn with the annual running of the Smarty Jones Stakes 100k at a mile.

Also, this coming weekend marks the second Kentucky Derby Future Wager, and it promises to offer some major value. If you have a strong opinion, then this is the weekend to go with it! Join us along the Derby Trail! All of our Top Ten Lists can be found 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

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Kentucky Derby 2021 Contenders

#1 Essential Quality: I remain wedded to my pick… The Tapit colt worked nicely for Cox (Sunday 01/17/2021, 5F 1:01:40… easy) going up against his accomplished filly, Travel Column. Recall, after a going 3/3 in the fall, with his last being that dominating performance mid-stretch in the BC Juvenile @KEE, he is looking great. That record scored him the Eclipse Award for champion 2-tr-old colt of 2020. As I have said before, I liked this Godolphin bred and owned runner so much. The split Risen Star (G2) still could be a target. If all goes well, the Louisiana Derby? Then, it is on to Churchill! Of course, Cox may not want to have EQ face off against stablemate Mandaloun @FG in the Risen S., so the Southwest Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn could be the other option. A reminder: Godolphin has won every elite race around the globe from Melbourne to Dubai to Royal Ascot—except the Kentucky Derby. Hmm…

#2 Spielberg: Bob Baffert has a bevy of young guns in his stable, but Spielberg is the most tested. No, his performances have not been sparkling, winning by nostrils instead of number of double-digit lengths. I want my Kentucky Derby hopefuls battle-ready, and this “Highlight Horse” did it for me when he gutted out the win against a longshot last out in the Los Al Futurity. Everyone was behind Red Flag, but Baffert’s runner proved he better. I am looking forward to seeing this one in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) 30 Jan. @SA. Most of the turfwriting outlets confirmed this next sighting.   

#3 Fire At Will: Mike Maker has proved he belongs among the elite trainers of America. He has never won a Triple Crown race, so there is no time like the present. Fire At Will’s turf pedigree runs through Declaration of War, but as I have said, he has the capability to run on dirt. This past fall, he shipped into Saratoga, Belmont, and finally, at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (at 30/1), winning them all. Not only can this horse run and ship, but he is conditioned by a master. When I spoke to Maker a week ago, he confirmed that all options were on the table, but that a Derby prep run “made the most sense.” Watch out where this one surfaces!

#4 Keepmeinmind: That outing in the Kentucky Jockey Club by Keepmeinmind at Churchill Downs was stellar. Watching the replay, you will see pure acceleration and power—2 Derby traits needed for the 1¼. I am still in awe of how trainer Rob Diodoro and jockey David Cohen put together a nice fall. I standby that their combo has the potential to be one of the best in the sport. As for the son of Laoban, his conditioner has confirmed that the Southwest Stakes (G2) will be his next stop next month @OP.

#5 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. Coming into last Saturday’s Lecomte Stakes (G3), he was clearly the 2nd choice behind Brad Cox’s Juddmonte Farms homebred, Mandaloun. By the end of the race, most like myself, were thoroughly impressed with his 91 Beyer, and Joe Talamo’s frontend strategy. It worked to perfection. Asmussen has confirmed that the Risen Star (G2) is next!

#6 Life Is Good: My compatriots, Neil and Sean, continue to think highly of Life Is Good (LIG). I have not been able to join them, and I may be on the outside looking in. Now, Bob Baffert's power runner has the Sham (G3) under his belt. But, if you scrutinize that win you might be puzzled. The other Baffert stablemate, Medina Spirit, was game down the lane. Luckily for LIG, he did enough running early to put himself so far out, that few could have reeled him in. I want to see this player up against a bigger and better field. Ship him to Oaklawn, Mr. Baffert! Then, we can talk legitimate Derby hopes. Sorry Neil and Sean, I am not there yet.  

#7 Jackie's Warrior: 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 Asmussen’s frontend burner finished 4th to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile @KEE, he still is extremely talented. Maclean’s Music is a burgeoning sire, that is bred for the necessary Derby distance of a 1 ¼. Expect the HOF conditioner to have a suitable plan of attack, and maybe, we will see a rematch with Cox’s Essential Quality. Wouldn’t that be incredible?

#8 Hot Rod Charlie: That 2nd place finish behind Essential Quality in the BC Juvenile at odds of 94-1 was a big score. Tyler Gaffalione almost sprung a giant upset, but this isn’t horseshoes; it is horse racing. As mentioned, his conditioner Doug O’Neill has a number of options moving forward, but it appears that he is going to keep him in California, and run him in Santa Anita’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) at a 1 1/16th in late January. His work tabs have looked good, and it will be interesting to see him match wits with the likes of Baffert’s Spielberg.

#9 Prime Factor: You cannot have a Derby Top Ten without a runner from Todd Pletcher’s outfit. Can you? Well, I did not have to go far. Neil and Sean may have Life Is Good, but my answer is Pletcher’s Prime Factor. Go watch his maiden at Gulfstream Park back on 12 Dec., it was a sparkling diamond! Ok, so he did not have the speed fig that LIG did, but it was still more than respectable. Look for this son of the great Quality Road to follow in his sire’s footsteps. Holy Bull (G3)? Fountain of Youth (G2)? Check and check…

#10 Moonlite Strike: If there is a “prescient pick” in my Top Ten, then it belongs to Saffie Joseph’s Moonlite Strike. He is slated to compete this Friday at Oaklawn in the Smarty Jones Stakes 100k. I think he warrants a gander. After what I think was a gutsy performance against 5 others in an OC75k contest at Gulfstream last time that was out on the engine, he ships to Hot Springs. This son of Liam’s Map draws Joe Talamo, and that looks to be a good thing after his ride aboard Midnight Bourbon in the Lecomte (G3). Joseph is seen as a “regional” trainer since he is based in Florida. Do not be surprised if this one scores a win against what will be 2 heavy favorites in the Smarty from the barn of Steve Asmussen and Brad Cox. I am calling it!

I also considered: Todd Fincher’s Señor Buscador, Chad Brown’s Highly Motivated, Peter Miller’s Get Her Number, and Bill Mott’s Nova Rags.

Dropped out: Brooklyn Strong and Reinvestment Risk

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!

Kentucky Derby 2021

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