News and STORIES

The Kentucky Derby Takes Center Stage

Author: Chris Adams
Published: Wednesday April 28, 2021

Saturday marks the return of the Kentucky Derby to the first Saturday in May after moving to September amid the global pandemic in 2020.

History of the Kentucky Derby

The race has taken place at historic Churchill Downs every year since 1875 when Aristides won the inaugural running.

The Derby is considered the first leg in the Triple Crown series. There have been 13 horses to complete this feat winning the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. Two of the 13 have been in the last decade with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. Both runners were trained by Bob Baffert who is first among active trainers with 6 Kentucky Derby victories.

In 2013 the Kentucky Derby created a prep series called the Road to the Kentucky Derby in which horses needed to earn points to make the race. Since the implementation of the system, the race has produced far more predictable winners.

Derbies that were run before 1930 were started without the use of a gate. In 1941 Churchill Downs introduced the first-ever electronic gate which used a mechanism to ensure all gates opened at the same time. The following year they introduced the famed auxiliary gate which allowed the field to go from 14 to 20 runners. The gate was an extra gate clipped on and left a gap between posts 14 and 15. In 2020 Churchill purchased a 20 horse gate which removed the gap created by the auxiliary gate. The special gate is used only for this race each year.

The official drink of the Kentucky Derby is the Mint Julep which features bourbon, a Kentucky staple.

When the horses come onto the track they will be welcomed by the sounds of “My Old Kentucky Home” over the loudspeakers at the track.

Kentucky Derby Trends

With the exception of Country House in 2019 who was placed first via disqualification, the Derby has been won by horses in the top three betting choices since 2013.

The Derby has been extremely kind to horses on or near the lead since the introduction of the points system. Deep closers are usually a safe toss from the top spots on wagers.

While the winner has often been quite predictable, there is great value in finding long shots to fill out the trifecta and superfecta wagers.

Although post positions 5-10 have been historically most successful, there have been a fair number of recent success stories from the far outside posts. It is widely considered that posts 1-3 are negative draws for any horse who starts from there.

Significant Stories Heading Into The Kentucky Derby

Essential Quality, Helium, and Rock Your World enter the Derby as the only 3 undefeated horses.

All Derby runners are 3 years old which is early in a horse’s racing career. Part of the challenge of the Derby is that horses can rapidly improve and end up running far better than their past performances would indicate.

By most speed figure makers accounts, this Derby field lacks the quality of previous fields.

Keeping horses healthy can be a challenge. For this reason, there have been a number of defections and additions since the prep races concluded. Most notably, two of Bob Baffert’s will not run in Life is Good and Concert Tour.

With a 20 horse field likely to be the biggest any of these horses ever face, where a horse gets to start the race can be critical to helping them work out a trip.

Churchill Downs scrapped their 1-year experiment with dime superfectas in which players only had to pay $.10 for each possible combination of the top 4 finishers in order. The wager has been returned to a $1 minimum which should increase payout as players are forced to leave out more runners due to budget.

The Top Contenders

#14 Essential Quality

Ridden by Luis Saez and trained by Brad Cox, Essential Quality is likely to be the favorite when the gates open. It is hard to argue his 5 for 5 record, though some of his performances suggest he is not as dominant as the record would indicate.

#1 Known Agenda

Known Agenda is trained by Todd Pletcher and won the Florida Derby in his final prep before the Kentucky Derby. Irad Ortiz has more wins than any other jockey in the nation and will be aboard this colt. Unfortunately, he drew the rail post which has been unkind to Derby runners.

#17 Highly Motivated

Highly Motivated just missed upsetting Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes. He has been steadily improving with each start for one of the nation’s best trainers in Chad Brown who looks for his first Derby win. Javier Castellano will get the leg up on this one.

#15 Rock Your World

Rock Your World started his career 2-0 on turf before winning the Santa Anita Derby convincingly in his dirt debut. He looks like he might be loose on the lead with Joel Rosario aboard for John Sadler and could be tough to chase down based on recent runnings of the Derby.

Possible Upsetters

While the top four runners are certainly deserving of respect, much has been made about the relatively weak caliber of this year’s field. Certainly, that is subject to change as horses continue to improve, but it leaves the possibility of a longer shot winning.

#9 Hot Rod Charlie

Doug O’Neill trains Hot Rod Charlie who pulled a major upset in the Louisiana Derby against East Coast horses. Joel Rosario hopped off to ride Concert Tour, but that horse is no longer running. This versatile runner will now get the riding services of Flavien Prat.

#7 Mandaloun

Mandaloun goes out for Brad Cox who also has Essential Quality. This runner gets Florent Geroux in the saddle and looks to make up for an underwhelming performance in the Louisiana Derby.

#20 Bourbonic

Todd Pletcher trained Bourbonic shocked the Wood Memorial field winning at 72-1. The Wood has typically been a weak prep for the Kentucky Derby, but the horse has a late-running style that could serve him well if the pace melts down. Kendrick Carmouche will be the first black jockey in the Derby since 2013. The post position was not kind for this closer.

#19 Soup and Sandwich

Soup and Sandwich was 2nd in the Florida Derby behind Greatest Honor, who is now off the Kentucky Derby Trail. Mark Casse loves to point horses to the Derby but has not had much success in the race. John Velazquez chose Medina Spirit over this runner which isn’t a great sign of confidence.

#18 Super Stock

Steve Asmussen looks to snap his streak of most Derby runners without a win (21) with this improving colt who upset the Arkansas Derby field. Asmussen puts his top jock aboard in Ricardo Santana.

#8 Medina Spirit

Medina Spirit is trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by John Velazquez who has won the Kentucky Derby 3 times. The horse has struggled to beat Derby caliber horses in his preps, but is always in the money and his connections know how to win this race which can only help.

For more assistance in finding your Derby selections don’t forget to check out Daily Horse Picks extensive list of handicapping resources including the new jockey and trainer analysis tools, artificial intelligence handicapping and exclusive Daily Horse Picks Derby selections. For access to these same tools for other races from Churchill Downs, premium packages are available.