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kentucky derby

Handicapping the 2021 Kentucky Derby

Mandaloun, who starts from the No. 7 position and is currently 15-1, has looked strong in recent workouts.
Mandaloun, who starts from the No. 7 position and is currently 15-1, has looked strong in recent workouts.Andy Lyons/Getty

In some ways, the 2021 Kentucky Derby field has already been judged. It’s not that good.

Mostly what’s missing is Life is Good, a phenomenal colt who won all three of his starts impressively, with speed figures that dwarf this field of 20 3-year-olds. Life is Good will miss the Triple Crown races because of an ankle injury.

The Churchill Downs starting gate will be filled mostly with horses who have similar but below-average speed figures compared with Derby winners.

That includes the favorite, Essential Quality, who is undefeated in five races but hasn’t been dazzling-fast and whose last workout left experts wondering whether he’s in peak condition.


Not surprisingly, this is a balanced field, with many horses having an opportunity to win. The pace should be fast, which could help the late runners unless they have traffic problems in the big field.

As is almost always the case, there’s money to be made. But if you’re looking for greatness, wait for the Travers in August when Life Is Good and Flight Line (who has raced only once but has a speed figure that is multiple lengths better than this field) could meet.

A look at this year’s field, in post position order:

1. Known Agenda

Odds: 6-1

Jockey: Irad Ortiz

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breakdown: The owner, Vinnie Viola, also owns the Florida Panthers and part of Derby-winning Always Dreaming (2017). Known Agenda looked like a Derby contender when winning the Florida Derby in his last race, but he is stuck in the dreaded No. 1 post, which is a disadvantage at Churchill Downs.

Known Agenda, shown working out at Churchill Downs Wednesday, does not have a favorable starting slot.
Known Agenda, shown working out at Churchill Downs Wednesday, does not have a favorable starting slot.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

2. Like the King

Odds: 50-1

Jockey: Drayden Van Dyke

Trainer: Wesley Ward

Breakdown: He won the Jeff Ruby Steaks in his last, but that was on a synthetic track. Also, his trainer is known more for winning with 2-year-olds or sprinters on the grass.


3. Brooklyn Strong

Odds: 50-1

Jockey: Umberto Rispoli

Trainer: Daniel Velazquez

Breakdown: He trains at Parx, just outside of Philadelphia, so he’s off the beaten path. He has raced only once in 2021 and was up the track in the Wood Memorial.

4. Keepmeinmind

Odds: 50-1

Jockey: David Cohen

Trainer: Robertino Diodoro

Breakdown: One respected professional horse player, Mike Maloney, feels this long shot could surprise, although he’d recommend using the late-runner in the underneath positions in exotic wagers.

5. Sainthood

Odds: 50-1

Jockey: Corey Lanerie

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breakdown: Just won his first race Feb. 13, then ran second in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. Despite the skill of his trainer, it would be a huge upset.

6. O Besos

Odds: 20-1

Jockey: Marcelino Pedroza

Trainer: Greg Foley

Breakdown: Foley is a journeyman who races regularly in Kentucky, so it’s a big moment for him. His horse’s best result was a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby.

7. Mandaloun

Odds: 15-1

Jockey: Florent Geroux

Trainer: Brad Cox

Breakdown: A mystery horse. No one, including Cox, has been able to explain his poor performance in the Louisiana Derby. He’s royally bred, there’s no question he can go the 1¼-mile distance, and he has won three of five lifetime starts. He has been outstanding in his recent workouts.

8. Medina Spirit

Odds: 15-1

Jockey: John Velazquez

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Breakdown: Baffert should have had the favorite with Life Is Good; now this horse is his only chance. He’ll be near the front from the beginning, and has never been worse than second in five starts. His best victory was in the Robert Lewis back in January.


Medina Spirit is famed trainer Bob Baffert's only chance in this Derby.
Medina Spirit is famed trainer Bob Baffert's only chance in this Derby.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

9. Hot Rod Charlie

Odds: 8-1

Jockey: Flavien Prat

Trainer: Doug O’Neill

Breakdown: Finished second behind Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and was an impressive winner of the Louisiana Derby in his last start.

10. Midnight Bourbon

Odds: 20-1

Jockey: Mike Smith

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Breakdown: He has been consistent in two ways: He has never been worse than third in seven starts, but he also has never been truly impressive the way you like to see in a possible Derby winner. Could be part of the early pace.

11. Dynamic One

Odds: 20-1

Jockey: Jose Ortiz

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breakdown: He has won only one race, but has a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial. That race, however, is being downgraded for its quality.

12. Helium

Odds: 50-1

Jockey: Julien Leparoux

Trainer: Mark Casse

Breakdown: Casse is a highly respected trainer, but there are many questions about why he has not entered Helium in a race since March 6 when he won the Tampa Bay Derby, his only race of 2021. Helium has won all three of his races, and Casse feels he’ll perform better with the long rest.

13. Hidden Stash

Odds: 50-1

Jockey: Rafael Bejarano

Trainer: Victoria Oliver

Breakdown: In this era of lightly raced 3-year-olds, Hidden Stash is a regular iron horse with seven starts. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find any reasons in those races to project him as the winner of the Derby.


14. Essential Quality

Odds: 2-1

Jockey: Luis Saez

Trainer: Brad Cox

Breakdown: A deserving favorite, undefeated in five starts and last year’s 2-year-old champion, with a top-shelf owner (global power Godolphin), jockey, and trainer. His last workout didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but there are some, including Cox, who feel it’s not indicative of his potential performance.

Favorite Essential Quality works out at Churchill Downs Thursday.
Favorite Essential Quality works out at Churchill Downs Thursday.Andy Lyons/Getty

15. Rock Your World

Odds: 5-1

Jockey: Joel Rosario

Trainer: John Sadler

Breakdown: Undefeated in three races, his last victory was in the Santa Anita Derby and his speed figure was outstanding. His other two victories were on grass. Sadler, however, has a history of failing when shipping horses out of his home base in Southern California. Rock Your World will be part of the early pace.

16. King Fury

Odds: 20-1

Jockey: Brian Hernandez

Trainer: Ken McPeek

Breakdown: He has raced only once in 2021 but won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, which is highly unusual for a Derby horse. He does have two victories at Churchill Downs, however.

17. Highly Motivated

Odds: 10-1

Jockey: Javier Castellano

Trainer: Chad Brown

Breakdown: Has raced only twice this year. He finished a dull third in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, but then he gave Essential Quality some tough competition before relenting near the wire in the Blue Grass Stakes. That could indicate he’s ready to really improve in his third start. Some experts doubt his ability to win at 1¼ miles.

18. Super Stock

Odds: 30-1

Jockey: Rafael Santana Jr.

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Breakdown: An upset winner of the Arkansas Derby when he benefitted from ideal conditions, tracking a fast pace and then moving past the front-runners. He would need another good setup with a fast pace and clear sailing.


19. Soup and Sandwich

Odds: 30-1

Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione

Trainer: Mark Casse

Breakdown: Owner Charlotte Weber, who races under the stable name Live Oak Plantation, is the heir to the Campbell’s Soup fortune and often gives her horses playful names in that vein. It also probably means the horse will be over-bet. He had a decent second-place finish in the Florida Derby after winning his first two races.

Will Soup And Sandwich whet the appetite of Derby wagerers?
Will Soup And Sandwich whet the appetite of Derby wagerers?Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

20. Bourbonic

Odds: 30-1

Jockey: Kendrick Carmouche

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Breakdown: At 72-1, he came charging down the stretch to win the Wood Memorial. He’s still not highly regarded, but has won three of his last four races and might get a fast pace to help his running style.


1. Mandaloun, 2. Rock Your World, 3. Essential Quality.

Joe Sullivan can be reached at josephsullivan1974@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan