Qualities Essential For the Derby: Our Top 10 Contenders

Our weekly list of Kentucky Derby Top 10 rolls out once again... See who we like for this week as the Trail deepens!
Our weekly list of Kentucky Derby Top 10 rolls out once again... See who we like for this week as the Trail deepens!

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Welcome to the 14th 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 3-yr-old male Thoroughbreds.

When you think about the "qualities" that make a Derby Winner, there is a long list. Some point to bloodlines, while others talk about how horses respond to adversity...  Possibly, the best answer is one that combines a number of abilities that are... well... "essential."

Last week, the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn and the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream kicked off, what I like to think, is the Second Round of the Derby Trail Preps. Both winners were commanding in these signature "wins."

Heading into this week, tectonic shifts will continue to ensue based on what happened in those races. Now, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), San Felipe (G2), and Gotham Stakes (G2) will elevate a new crop of winners. 

See who we like below… Join us along the Derby Trail!

Note: Sean will update his Top Ten ASAP...

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: Here is the top Kentucky Derby contender... in my opinion. Brad Cox’s undefeated Tapit colt shone brightly when he scored off the bench in the slop of the Southwest Stakes (G3) @OP. With Luis Saez at the controls, he rated well, handled adversity, and bested both Jackie’s Warrior and Spielberg. Right now, he exhibits all the “qualities” one wants to see in a Derby Champion. Recall, after a going 3/3 in the fall, with his last being that dominating performance mid-stretch in the BC Juvenile @KEE, his move down the lane was distinct. It was in the SW Stakes too. As I have said before, I liked this Godolphin bred and owned runner from the start. “Big Blue” seems well on its way to breaking the streak… the powerful stable has won every elite race around the globe from Melbourne to Dubai to Royal Ascot—except the Kentucky Derby. NEXT: Arkansas Derby (G1) @OP or Blue Grass Stakes (G1) @KEE.

#2 GREATEST HONOUR: The Derby Trail would not be the Derby Trail without a Shug McGaughey participant. Well, here he is. This colt out of Tapit was incredibly sharp 2-back in a MSW contest at Gulfstream Park. Then he followed it up with a rousing victory against heavily bet Prime Factor in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3). After running well at each of the NYRA tracks, it appears he has found a home in S. Florida, and did so again, last Saturday in the Fountain of Youth (G2). That late burst of speed, plus getting Jose Ortiz aboard as pilot, will make him a powerful force as we head towards the FLA Derby. Shug knows how to prepare a horse for early May, and this one is near the top of my list when it comes to who I want to see run next @GP. Are we looking at the best dirt router that Courtlandt Farms has ever owned? We shall see… NEXT: Florida Derby (G1) @GP.

#3 MEDINA SPIRIT: Some of the water cooler talk around the tracks of America says that this Bob Baffert runner is the real deal, since that Bob Lewis (G3) performance in the stretch @SA was full of verve. The scuttle is that he wanted to keep going… a Florida-bred? Well, it appears the video evidence is proof—he was more than game, outlasting Roman Centurian. There is no doubt that this son of Protonico can stretch out and that makes him truly special. The fact of the matter is the Lewis has probably been the most competitive race to date on the Trail. Since Baffert’s colt was best at the wire, that means he has the most promise moving forward. What is going to be interesting is how will he match-up against Life Is Good? Will it be a repeat of the Sham (G3)? Or is this already a different horse? We will find out Saturday when they go hoof-to-hoof again… NEXT: San Felipe (G2) @SA.

#4 LIFE IS GOOD: My compatriots, Neil and Sean, continue to think highly of Life Is Good. LIG, as he is becoming known, has skill and is headed for a match race this coming Friday vs. stablemate Medina Spirit. Odds on, one of these 2 is going to win the San Felipe (G2). It is just a question of whom? Going back to the Sham Stakes (G3) @SA, it seemed like LIG was running low on fuel. That may be why pundits were so keen to see Medina Spirit run again. You know, Winstar Farm is brimming with hope, as the ownership looks to get back to Churchill. Whatever happens, it is going to be a fascinating situation that develops. This is specifically why Bob Baffert is simply the best at managing the Kentucky Derby Trail. Whatever you deem it, nothing springs eternal like this path, road, or trail! NEXT: San Felipe (G2) @SA.  

#5 MANDALOUN: What a No.2 starter for Brad Cox… Some trainers would give their eye-teeth to have any one of his runners, but he has 3 on my list. The colt has made some major strides over the past month and a half, 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, and if Cox can have him ready for the Louisiana Derby (G1), then that should cement his place in the starting gate on the “First Saturday in May.” Might be a sleeper, what with Essential Quality garnering all the plaudits.  NEXT: LA Derby (G1) @FG.

#6 CADDO RIVER: Of all the members of this esteemed list, none of them announced their presence with authority more than Brad Cox’s No. 3 in the rotation. The Smarty Jones 100k field was left in the dust. Go watch that video, and it was though everyone else was in slow motion. The question is, do you think that is enough to fully back this colt against a better field, or do you need to see more? It is difficult to know how to interpret that performance. My sense is, based on what I know about Cox, that he knows precisely what this son of Hard Spun can handle. That Rebel S., if he enters, is going to be a titanic race now that Keepmeinmind, among others, is going to draw in. NEXT: Rebel Stakes (G2) @OP.

#7 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 is pointing his talented colt towards the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn this coming month. With so many fits and starts, including a blast of cold weather, the question remains… can Diodoro’s runner power up coming off the bench? We will know every soon…  NEXT: Rebel Stakes (G2) @OP.

#8 RISK TAKING: Chad Brown has what some believe is his best chance to get to the KY Derby. Risk Taking was superb in the Withers Stakes (G3), as the colt dominated the lane all the way home. Klaravich Stables puts forward an “economic” model of Thoroughbred ownership that is superb. One of these days they may come to dominate the Derby Trail. It has not quite happened like it has for turf events, but time may prove otherwise. I might prefer to retain a more accomplished jockey than Eric Cancel. Where is Irad when Brown needs him! Well, I guess he is busy winning almost every race down at Gulfstream. Time to charter the Learjet with the giant “KS” emblazoned on the side. Tabbing the Wood as his next stop seems in order. NEXT: Wood Memorial (G1) @AQU.

#9 HIGHLY MOTIVATED: 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. This year, they might end up having 2 entries, if they play their cards correctly. These connections 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 back in November on the BC undercard was impressive. The next step for this Into Mischief colt will be stretching out to 1 1/16th, but an even bigger issue is the layoff. How fit will he be, in what promises to be a hotly contested race at the “Big A?” NEXT: Gotham Stakes (G3) @AQU.

#10 PROXY: Trainer Mike Stidham sent his colt into the Lecomte (G3) and the Risen Star (G2), both @FG, and the results were 2 second-place finishes. Those efforts were impressive, especially when you consider they were both from off it. On a speed favoring track, that is not an easy accomplishment. I will tell you… this colt has one of the most beautiful, healthy coats, I have ever seen. He is not all looks, though. Built for power moves down the stretch, his running style might suit Churchill perfectly, if the pace is right. In the meantime, with the LA Derby looming, he has the chance of earning a spot in the KYD Gate, for sure. It might not even be a “Must Win,” if he can at least score a 2nd place finish. Points are points… Stidham though, he wants a “W.” NEXT: LA Derby (G1) @FG.

I also considered: Bill Mott’s CANDY MAN ROCKET, Bob Baffert’s CONCERT TOUR, Doug O’Neill’s HOT ROD CHARLIE and THE GREAT ONE, Steve Asmussen’s MIDNIGHT BOURBON, Simon Callaghan’s ROMAN CENTURIAN

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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