Kentucky Derby Expert Picks: Our team have their final say!

Who will follow Authentic to win the Kentucky Derby? Our experts weigh in...
Who will follow Authentic to win the Kentucky Derby? Our experts weigh in...

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Our team at HorseRacing.net have their say on how the 147th Kentucky Derby will play out. You can bet on the race with any of our betting partners and all the Morning Line odds are at the bottom of the screen...

Sean's Take...

The 147th running of the G1 Kentucky Derby doesn’t feature a particularly strong group of 3-year-olds (thanks in large part to the defection of Life Is Good) but it does make for an interesting betting race, primarily because I’m not overly keen on the heavy favorite Essential Quality (#14), which is where any discussion of this race must begin. Let me start by saying I don’t hate this horse at all; my distaste for him is largely a matter of price. There’s no doubt that Essential Quality is near the very top of this division and a legitimate contender in this race, however he’s done little to separate himself from his peers this year even though he continues to sport an outsized reputation for being last year’s 2-year-old champ and a perfect 5-for-5 in his career. He’s yet to face any true adversity, which is partially a testament to his adaptable running style, but it’s also reason to be skeptical of him as he’s going to be a very short price in this spot — undoubtedly the toughest test of his life. I have no illusions about his actual chances of winning, which aren’t insignificant, but I can’t in good conscience play him in the vicinity of 2-1.

Just to Essential Quality’s outside we find a short-priced entrant I have even less interest in. Rock Your World (#15) burst onto the Derby scene with an authoritative win in the G1 Santa Derby last out (his first and only dirt start), but I have a hard time seeing him replicating that effort here. As a speed figure acolyte it may seem somewhat hypocritical of me to play against this horse as he does own the highest last-out Beyer in this race by a fair margin, however he may have taken advantage of a strong rail in the Santa Anita Derby and I have zero faith that a runner this inexperienced is going to be able to repeat such a performance as he ships cross-country for a trainer that struggles outside the state of California. He feels like a total paper tiger to me, and if just one thing goes wrong I suspect he’ll fold.

So now that we’ve discussed a couple horses I don’t like, let’s examine the two that I’m most interested in. I’ve long been a fan of Medina Spirit (#8), and for the life of me I can’t understand why so many people are still sleeping on this horse, who has quietly compiled one of the strongest resumes in the field. Yes, he was soundly beaten by Rock Your World in the G1 Santa Anita Derby, but as stated previously it felt like the inside might have been the place to be that day at Santa Anita and Medina Spirit was wide throughout while chasing a rapid pace. At this point it’s safe to say he’s no superstar, but he just keeps plugging along with quality effort after quality effort, with the kind of tactical speed and grinding style that play very well in this race. I think he’s a strong contender in this renewal of the Derby, and it’s not often you get a Bob Baffert horse at double-digit odds.

I like Medina Spirit quite a bit, but he’s been eclipsed in my heart by Hot Rod Charlie (#9), who in my mind has been the biggest winner in recent weeks as others have sputtered around him, either taking a step back or just failing to progress. I’ve always had an affinity for Hot Rod Charlie. Even at the beginning of the year I had him ranked above the horse who beat him in the 2020 G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, none other than Essential Quality, and I’m happy to keep it that way following his convincing victory in the G2 Louisiana Derby. He did get a very good trip in the Louisiana Derby, however he again proved he can be effective shipping and also seemed to relish the added ground of that race, which bodes well for this 1 ¼-mile test. I think he has the versatility to work out a very good trip from this post and he’s already proven capable of overcoming some adversity; as such, he’s my top pick.

Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit are the two I’ll be focusing on in the win pool, but this is the Derby, so let’s talk about a few underneath possibilities. My favorite such runner is Mandaloun (#7), Essential Quality’s stablemate and one of the major buzz horses in the lead-up to the ‘Run for the Roses.’ Ordinarily I avoid these types, but Mandaloun is one I can somewhat get behind, or at least see the logic of. He was running some fast races at Fair Grounds over the winter before he inexplicably threw in a clunker in the G2 Louisiana Derby. That wasn’t exactly a good time for him to go off script, and he has no excuse for that dismal effort, however by all accounts he’s doing very well at Churchill and feels like one that will rebound. The speed figures he was earning prior to his Louisiana Derby debacle absolutely put him in the mix, and he’s already had some success over this track.

I don’t really think he’s a viable win threat, but O Besos (#6) is exactly the type of horse that could hit the board in a wide-open and relatively weak edition of this race. He’s made steady strides throughout his career for trainer Greg Foley, and his latest outing was his best yet — a third-place finish in the G2 Louisiana Derby that earned him a competitive 96 Beyer Speed Figure. O Besos’ late-running style relies on getting some pace to run at and avoiding whatever mayhem unfolds in front of him, but if things break his way I could see him closing late to get a piece of this, maybe even a significant portion at that.

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J.N's Take...

EQ #14 . . . EQ #14 . . . EQ #14 . . . That pair of letters signals the arrival of my Kentucky Derby “Single.” I was on this horse before the Breeders’ Cup, and since then, he has not failed me yet. Why would I hesitate in not backing him once again? I find all this debate tiresome, but necessary. Mea culpa . . . He has so many virtues that this will sound like a “tout.” It is decidedly not.

Yes, he is the best horse in this race, and you could spend time disassembling what is under the hood. Yet, what people need to realize is that in the end all that matters is the work ethic of the Louisville-native, Brad Cox. He has masterfully infused this horse with the tools to exhibit the “Heart of a Champion.” Not trite . . . trust me . . . He has poured his knowledge and desire, along with a specific Derby progress plan, into a Godolphin homebred that was sent to him for one purpose—bring the elusive KYD Trophy home to the “Boys in Blue.”

The break at the start of the KYD is “essential,” but now with the new Australian-built Starting Gate, it should make for a cleaner experience for all. I expect Luis Saez to take a page from his ride at the Dubai World Cup, when he guided another Godolphin homebred to victory on the other side of the world—Mystic Guide. Laying close and finding running room by the top of the stretch is central. If he can stay clear, the lane will open up for his aggressively-minded pilot. Fractions will be just that, times on a board, but I have little concern for them. EQ #14 is like K.I.T.T. of Knight Rider fame (80s reference), or the Iron Spider Suit (Marvel reference), in that he can morph and calibrate into different “modes” depending on the situation at hand. That gives Saez options, and a bevy of dirt gears when he needs them.

I’ve crafted argument after argument thus far, penned pieces on the “eclipse” of Cox’s rise to the pinnacle of this sport in North America, and even discussed how Saez continues to be a comet. I remember seeing this jockey pass by when he came to Sam Houston one year, and thought, “When will his time come?” Well, it did in 2019, and then it was gone. Nothing like redemption and horse racing, rolled into an inviting package with a bow tied on top . . . eh?

For the connections, the time has arrived. No more verbiage, guff, or platitudes from the pundits (including me) . . . Let’s race!

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Neil's Take...

My colleagues above have delved into this race in great details already and having spoken with them for months along the Road to the Kentucky Derby - nothing they've written has surprised me. I was all on board Life is Good as I thought he had the opportunity not only to win the Derby but also had legitimate Triple Crown possibilities. Alas injury took him off that road and forced me to look elsewhere.

Back on Breeders' Cup Juvenile Day - a young two-year-old took out the Nyquist Stakes on the undercard in a record track time for Keeneland. That horse was called Highly Motivated (#17) and I've been keeping my eye on him ever since. I'm huge on bloodlines and his was an absolute beauty coming as he did out of the wonderful Into Mischief. Questions though about his stamina were very real and be bounced around the bottom of my Top 10 list before he went stride for stride with Essential Quality at the Blue Grass and my ears pricked up. To take such a classy horse so close indicates that this Chad Brown three-year-old is just getting better. A nice Post Draw has him in the position where he won't get caught in the bench and if desired - he can get to the front and be involved all the way round.

No doubt that Essential Quality (#14) is the rightful favorite but if he goes off at anything around Even money (which he is on the live pools as of Derby morning) then that is just too short. There are a plethora of really good horses in this field that can upset him. Hot Rod Charlie (#9) looks a real gamer and should provide the early speed. I can see why Sean likes him. Medina Spirit (#8) too has been on my radar for a long time. He ran stablemate Life is Good close at the Sham before holding off Hot Rod Charlie at the Robert B. Lewis. I would not be surprised if either of them were there or thereabouts coming down the stretch.

Rock Your World (#15) was outstanding when he switched to dirt for the Santa Anita Derby and blew away a really good field. His lack of experience on the dirt is a concern but if he replicates that run then he'll be right in it and my long shot play is Soup and Sandwich (#19) who was runner-up at the Florida Derby. His big knock is inexperience which is why his odds are so long but again I truly love the bloodline and think he wins a big Graded Stakes race in his career. The Derby is likely too soon but if you want a big number to hit the board - he's my pick.

Overall though I'm sticking with Highly Motivated. I have the Oaks winner already in the bag so let's see if I can do the Oaks-Derby double.

For all our Kentucky Derby content including profiles of all the horses running - check out our Derby hub-page below...

Kentucky Derby 2021

Kentucky Derby 2021 Racecard

14
PP 14

Essential Quality

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Luis Saez /
  • Trainer: Brad Cox /
Morning Line Odds

Brad Cox finally has a Derby horse (two actually) but he rolls into Churchill Downs with the favorite. Undefeated and oozes class. 2-1 is short for me but our turf-man has him as his selection.

15
PP 15

Rock Your World

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Joel Rosario /
  • Trainer: John Sadler /
Morning Line Odds

A very very impressive winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Installed as the 5-1 second-favorite. Has only run once on dirt and blew away a good field. Not entirely sure if he's the real deal but I know he's got a real chance.

1
PP 1

Known Agenda

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Irad Ortiz /
  • Trainer: Todd Pletcher /
Morning Line Odds

Tricky inside Post Position. Arguably the most effected by the PP draw. 6-1 on the Morning Line should drift. Not heavily fancied by the HR.net team

9
PP 9

Hot Rod Charlie

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Flavien Prat /
  • Trainer: Doug O'Neill /
Morning Line Odds

A California invader who impressively took out the Louisiana Derby. He may well provide the early speed. Win contender.

17
PP 17

Highly Motivated

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Javier Castellano /
  • Trainer: Chad Brown /

Plenty of buzz surrounding this Into Mischief colt. Went stride for stride with Essential Quality at the Blue Grass. He will be our editor's pick.

7
PP 7

Mandaloun

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Florent Geroux /
  • Trainer: Brad Cox /

If you are looking at a value play from the middle of the odds then Mandaloun may well be it. That clunker at the Louisiana Derby has people worried but if was just one of those days - 15-1 could be long.

8
PP 8

Medna Spirit

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: John Velazquez /
  • Trainer: Bob Baffert /

Bob Baffert's only Derby horse. Was at #1 with our in-house handicapper for the final few weeks of the Prep season. Our editor likes him too. Real game horse who won't let anybody down. 15-1 screams value.

11
PP 11

Dynamic One

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Jose Ortiz /
  • Trainer: Todd Pletcher /

If Dynamic One is in the mix for the Derby then it'll be quite the surprise. Runner-up to stablemate Bourbonic in the Wood Memorial. Real long-shot.

16
PP 16

King Fury

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Brian Hernandez Jr. /
  • Trainer: Kenny McPeek /

Kenny McPeek is a darn good trainer. This horse is getting better with every race. Can he get in and among the front-runners coming down the stretch? I'm dubious but you can't just rule him out.

10
PP 10

Midnight Bourbon

  • Age: 3 /
  • Jockey: Mike Smith /
  • Trainer: Steve Asmussen /

Plenty of tactical speed for a nice horse who seems a step below the top contenders. Could win if everything - and I mean everything - falls his way. Most likely to be in the mix for the exotics if anything however.

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