Early positioning seems key to Saturday’s 147th running of the Kentucky Derby. The race lost a couple of expected pace players in recent weeks, and moderate internal fractions appear possible after the 20-horse field sorts itself out in the opening quarter-mile.
Contested over 1 1/4 miles, the Kentucky Derby will feature a prohibitive favorite in Essential Quality. He’s been established as the 2-1 choice on Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia’s morning line, and while the gray colt has done everything right so far, I have some concerns.
Essential Quality must keep advancing off a hard race in the Blue Grass S. (G2) four weeks ago, getting up after pacesetter Highly Motivated ducked out and switched to the wrong lead in deep stretch. His Brisnet numbers are not overwhelming, on par with several rivals, and he grinded out narrow wins in both the Blue Grass and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).
The unbeaten juvenile champion probably will have to work out a trip from off the pace with Luis Saez. Essential Quality is in my top three, but I will try to beat the favorite on top.
Only two horses in the modern era have won the Kentucky Derby in their fourth start, Justify (2018) and Big Brown (2008), and they were simply much faster than the competition.
Santa Anita Derby (G1) Rock Your World may be cut from the same cloth, but I’m leery of runaway wins where the pacesetter has everything his own way on the lead. It’s difficult to envision a similar trip on Saturday, which makes the probable second choice vulnerable in my estimation.
Top three selections
1st – Hot Rod Charlie improved when adding blinkers and stretching out distance four starts ago, breaking his maiden and finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) to conclude last year. After opening this season with a neck third in the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) at Santa Anita, the Oxbow colt shipped to Fair Grounds to post a two-length, frontrunning win in the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) at 1 3/16 miles.
I like the improved speed he displayed last time, and Hot Rod Charlie shrugged off a serious challenge from Midnight Bourbon at the top of the Louisiana Derby stretch, having plenty in reserve to score comfortably.
Doug O’Neill knows how to ready a three-year-old for a peak performance on the first Saturday in May, winning two-of-six starts in the first leg of the Triple Crown. Hot Rod Charlie reminds me of his first Kentucky Derby winner, I’ll Have Another, who was overlooked at 15-1 after winning an underappreciated edition of the 2012 Santa Anita Derby.
The Louisiana prep races were strong this year, also producing Kentucky Derby starters Midnight Bourbon and Mandaloun, and Hot Rod Charlie should gain confidence after registering his first stakes win last time. He’s listed as 8-1 fourth choice on the morning line.
I expect a favorable trip, just off the early leaders, and Hot Rod Charlie is my pick to win the 2021 Kentucky Derby.
2nd – Midnight Bourbon needed time to develop, improving significantly when opening this year with a front-running win in the Lecomte S. (G3) at Fair Grounds. Along with putting the Tiznow colt on the Kentucky Derby trail, the early-season triumph allowed Steve Asmussen to work backwards.
Next came a pair of respectable performances, a third in the Risen Star (G2) and a runner-up in the Louisiana Derby. Midnight Bourbon will enter the Kentucky Derby off a six-week freshening, and he appears to be peaking in preparation for his Hall of Fame trainer.
Midnight Bourbon recorded consecutive five-furlong bullet workouts under the Twin Spires before tuning up with a sharp maintenance drill. He’s trained sharply, and Asmussen has commented on how his pupil has grown into his massive frame in recent weeks.
I like the addition of Mike Smith, who knows how to hustle from the starting gate, and Midnight Bourbon should be prominent from the start. He appears capable of big effort on the front end.
3rd – Essential Quality is the horse to beat, but his price will be too low to back with confidence.
Good luck in the Kentucky Derby!