Derby 2021!

TL;DR Version – Rock Your World – Highly Motivated – Hot Rod Charlie

Live Longshots – Super Stock, King Fury, Midnight Bourbon

With apologies to Robert Browning:

The year’s at the spring

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

The Derby’s back on May 1—

All’s right with the world!

All is most certainly not right with the world – but it’s a whole bunch better than where we were a year ago this time. While my family and I have had our challenges this year (anybody wanna talk about the joys of homeschool?), we are most grateful to be healthy, together, and optimistic about what is to come. Many have had (and still are having) a much, much worse interaction with this virus, and if you are one of them, my deepest sympathies. But. . . we’re starting to turn the page. And getting the Derby back to its rightful place on the first Saturday in May is a step in the right direction, however small. I did not do a Derby preview last year, because it just didn’t feel right to get excited about a Derby in September (though to be fair – did I still drink too much bourbon, gamble too much money, and generally make my wife question why she married me? Do you know me at all?). But now Derby 147 is back where it should be, and with it, I present my Derby Preview 2021!

If you’ll recall my Derby preview from 2019, I picked Maximum Security. Specifically, I wrote that he would "win, or not [be] in the top 10." Considering he crossed the finish line first, then (fairly) got disqualified – I’d say I nailed that pick about as perfectly as one could. Did I get any money for that? No, Gentle Reader, I did not. But we’re back in the saddle (pun!), and we’re gonna nail it again this time. And if we don’t – 2022 will be our year! To the race. . .

Often, I think the Derby gets over-handicapped. Yes, there are a lot of angles one can consider – these horses have likely never run this far before, they’ve certainly never faced an atmosphere like this, a lot can go wrong in the cavalry charge to the first turn, etc. But at its core, it’s just a race – the fastest horse should win. And in this version, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of ridiculous, no-hope early speed that will run the legs off some of the better horses, so it really should be a reasonably fair race. Trying to get too cute with your selections can quickly get you too broke.

It’s another 20 horse field, so we need to narrow the field in some way. This has been described as a top-heavy field – which is a polite way of saying there’s a whole lotta meh in here. So let’s get rid of the meh first (odds reflect morning line):

The "I Wouldn’t Play This Horse Even With Your Money" Group

#13 Hidden Stash (50-1) – one of the more experienced colts in the race, but hasn’t really done much since a decent score at Churchill last fall. Should have the stamina to get there, but he’s just not particularly fast. His trainer is trying to become the first woman to win the Derby, if that’s your thing.

#12 Helium (50-1) – much better as a balloon filling than as a racehorse. Though undefeated, nothing in his history would suggest he’s as good as the rest.

#4 Keepmeinmind (50-1) – forget him.

#3 Brooklyn Strong (50-1) – maybe if it were pouring tomorrow (spoiler: it’s not going to be), you could make an argument. He ran a great race to take the Remsen over a sloppy track. But that’s it.

#2 Like the King (50-1) – got into this race by winning the Jeff Ruby at Turfway over the synthetic track, the same route Animal Kingdom took when winning a few years ago. Don’t count on history to repeat itself.

#5 Sainthood (50-1) – what if I told you that you had the opportunity to bet a horse that finished second to Like the King in his best showing, and has even less on his resume? Would that excite you? No? Me neither.

#11 Dynamic One (20-1) – he was a high-priced yearling who may finally be starting to show something. Ran 2nd in the Wood, but that was not a great race for anyone. I don’t think he’s ready for this yet.

#20 Bourbonic (30-1) – the winner of the Wood over Dynamic One at 35-1. Got a great trip, and was able to angle to the center of the track and get up just in time. But as mentioned above, it was a slow race, and someone had to win it. He’s never broken 90 on the speed figures (as a general rule, you need to run 100+ to win this race), and it’s worth noting that his owners were willing to sell him for as little as $50k in December.

#19 Soup and Sandwich (30-1) – a good second in the Florida Derby, but his resume is really thin. Three races in total, and he hasn’t been exactly blazing in any of them (nor in his recent works). There’s a good amount of speed and stamina in his pedigree, but that’s true for a lot of these. Good lunch order, though.

Nine down, 11 to go. . .

The "It Wouldn’t Exactly Shock Me, But I Sure Won’t Have It" Group

#7 Mandaloun (15-1) – the favorite in the Louisiana Derby, he never really fired and finished a distant sixth. If you throw out that race, there’s a lot to like, and he’s working well. He tends to run on the outside, which can make for an awfully long trip over a mile and a quarter. Not for me.

#6 O Besos (20-1) – every year, there is a "wise guy" horse – the horse that, on paper, may not have that great a resume, but there is a lot of buzz about him that he’s about to make a leap. O Besos is that horse this year. He’s bred to run long, and he’s improved in every race he’s run – putting up a 3rd in the aforementioned Louisiana Derby. If he does keep improving, he’s good enough to get it done.

#1 Known Agenda (6-1) – the Florida Derby winner, so you have to respect him, but I’m not really sure why his odds are so short. That race wasn’t that good, and there’s really nothing else in his resume to say he should win this. I’m obviously missing something – it wouldn’t be the first time.

Live Long Shots!

I’m going to have a little bit of money on all of these guys. There’s certainly a reason they are all 20-1 or worse, but. . .

#18 Super Stock (30-1) – the winner of the Arkansas Derby, 30-1 is kind of insulting (or an opportunity, depending on how you see it). Yes, he got smoked in the Rebel Stakes two back, but that was his first race back after a long layoff, and his Arkansas score was better visually than it appeared on paper. He should sit near the lead – the pace shouldn’t be suicidal, so that’s fine – and I think he’ll be running at the end. If he gets a good trip and gets first run around the turn. . .

#16 King Fury (20-1) – he’s only run once as a three-year old, a dominating win in the Lexington at Keeneland over a sloppy track. His two-year old campaign was nothing to write home about, but maybe he just needed time to mature? Maybe he just freaked in the Lexington, or maybe he just likes the slop. Or maybe the penny finally dropped. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

#10 Midnight Bourbon (20-1) – just as I don’t understand why Known Agenda’s odds are so short, I don’t understand why his are so long. He’s hit the board in every one of his seven career races, with good speed figures to boot. Last out was a second in the Louisiana Derby, and he can handle any trip. It is, however, a real open question as to whether he can get the distance, so I get why he’s not considered a true contender. But that judgment seems a little harsh, and it would not surprise me at all to see him show up in the exotics. Ignore him at your peril.

True Contenders

#8 Medina Spirit (15-1) – a Baffert-Johnny V combo is always dangerous. A Baffert-Johnny V combo sitting on this much raw speed? Oh boy. Like Midnight Bourbon above, there’s a lot of doubt as to whether he can run 1 ¼ miles. He couldn’t hang in the Santa Anita Derby (more on that below), but has put up a mid-90s+ speed figure in every one of his races as a three-year old. He’s going to be involved. 15-1 is generous, and I expect him to be shorter when the gate opens.

#9 Hot Rod Charlie (8-1) – definitely a late bloomer. Took him 4 tries to break his maiden, after which he ran a game 2nd in the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile at odds of 46-1. When he came back for his age 3 effort, he’s continued to improve, winning the Louisiana Derby with a 99 speed figure. I think he’s the best of the 4 runners out of that race, and he most certainly could get it done. The breeding is there, and Doug O’Neill, his trainer, has won this race twice. Honestly, though? I kinda hate the name. There’s a hot dog stand out by my in-laws called Hot Rod’s Hot Dogs. I can’t think of this horse without thinking of that. Is that the best, most scientific analysis I could offer you? Not quite. But here we are.

#14 Essential Quality (2-1) – I’m slotting him here because those odds are ridiculous. In his favor, he’s done nothing wrong. He won the Juvenile, he’s undefeated in five races, and he keeps cranking out upper 90s Beyers. Godolphin, the UAE-based owners, have made it their mission to win the Derby, and have thrown gobs of money at it to do so. Eventually, they will, and maybe this is the horse. He can run any style – he can be near the lead, he can come from the back, he can use his tactical speed to adjust as needed. But. He only won the Bluegrass by a neck, and the Juvenile by ¾. He’s not really blowing anybody away here. The only thing I can think of when I watch him run is that he runs "heavy." Everything looks like a lot of work. He’s not gliding, he’s powering – it’s like watching an NFL linebacker running a sprint. He gets it done, but I never get the sense that he’s in control of the race. Don’t get me wrong – I think he’s the 2nd best horse in the race. And if his odds drift up to 5-1 or more, I’m certainly playing him. But 2-1 in a 20 horse field should be reserved for a horse that is head and shoulders (withers?) above his competition. I don’t think this horse is that.

#17 Highly Motivated (10-1) – if you like Essential Quality at 2-1, you should loooove Highly Motivated at 10-1. The loser by a neck to Essential Quality in the Bluegrass, he’s also a contender for most raw speed in the race. He was caught in the Bluegrass, and really had no excuse – the pace wasn’t that fast. But he held on gamely, and I’m just not sure there’s that much difference between them. His two other losses have come when he didn’t get a good break. Coming out of the 17 hole should give him some room to maneuver, but he’s going to need to get into a good position on the first turn, without using all of his energy to do so. It’s possible he is better going shorter, and it’s not great that he has yet to win at 3. All that said, 10-1 is more than fair.

The Pick

#15 – Rock Your World (5-1) – I mentioned above a couple horses that might have the most speed, but no – this horse is the fastest. His Santa Anita Derby win was the only prep race of the season that made me say "whoa." He put up a 100 Beyer – the only horse to do so – and he just dominated that field (admittedly, not the deepest). He got loose on the lead, and then spurted away off the turn to win for fun. As laborious as Essential Quality looks, this guy just zips over the track. It’s graceful, it’s effortless. Now, if you want to knock him, you could point to his lack of seasoning (only 3 races) and the fact that his late splits haven’t been great. But when you’re well in control of the race, why push it at the end? There’s enough in his pedigree (Candy Ride, Empire Maker) to say he should be able to get the distance. He started his career on the turf, then switched to dirt for the Santa Anita. Clearly, he likes it, and I’m a big fan of that development path for a horse (I think it gives them a really strong foundation). I don’t think he has to get an uncontested lead, but I think he probably does anyway – besides Medina Spirit (whom he’s better/faster than), I’m not sure anyone wants to go with him early. Remember, the goal is to pick the best horse. If you can get good odds on him, too? Back up the truck.

So let’s call it Rock Your World over Highly Motivated, with some combination of Hot Rod's Hot Dogs Hot Rod Charlie, Super Stock, Midnight Bourbon, and King Fury filling out the bottom of the ticket. Good luck everyone!