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​The road to Kentucky Derby 2021 is winding down quickly. Three big points races were contested on April 3 and Essential Quality and Rock Your World impressed, and Bourbonic stunned his rivals in the Wood Memorial. The final two preps are on the docket for April 10 and the Arkansas Derby is the big one.

In other Kentucky Derby news, UAE Derby hero Rebel’s Romance (IRE) will not make the trip from Dubai. Holy Bull & Fountain of Youth winner Greatest Honour has ankle trouble and is out of the Derby. Trainer Shug McGaughey hopes to have him back in action at Saratoga later this summer. Gotham Stakes upsetter Weyburn has enough points to run in the Derby, but his trainer James Jerkens said he might wait for the Belmont Stakes.

Kentucky Derby 2021 Points Race Recaps

Blue Grass Stakes (G2) – Keeneland (4-3-21)

This was an epic throw down between front runner Highly Motivated and pace presser Essential Quality. There was no pace in the paper race and Highly Motivated assumed command early almost by default. Essential Quality is just so versatile and he never let the early leader get away. Those two dominated throughout and Essential Quality kept coming after Highly Motivated and relentlessly wore that one down to score by a determined neck. Highly Motivated did everything but win and was 5+ clear of Rombauer. The latter stalked from 3rd throughout but never got close to the top two finishers. Hidden Stash was well clear of the rest in 4th in a race that did not set up for him. Keepmeinmind, Sittin On Go, Hush of a Storm, and Leblon also ran but none of those runners ever got seriously involved.

Santa Anita Derby (G1) – Santa Anita Park (4-3-21)

Rock Your World did not miss a beat on the surface switch. He went straight to the front under Umberto Rispoli, and he was always traveling sweetly. He was pressured for a half-mile and steadily increased his advantage after pace presser Parnelli got tired. He was up a length and a half after six furlongs, kicked clear by 2+ lengths in the stretch, and cruised across the line more than four lengths ahead of beaten favorite Medina Spirit. The latter always shows up for Baffert and he pulled away from Dream Shake in a clear runner-up finish. My value top choice Dream Shake sat the ground saving stalking trip I expected and was best of the rest in 3rd. He is talented but has distanced limitations. The other Baffert trainee Defunded rallied to finish well clear of the rest in 4th, and Law Professor followed him home. Parnelli, The Great One, and Back Ring Home were next, and Ottothelegend eased in the stretch and walked off.

Wood Memorial (G2) – Aqueduct (4-3-21)

It was bombs away in this race. The pace figured to be contested and it was, but the closers everyone expected were not the ones around at the finish. Market Maven was sent to the lead from the outside post and faced pressure from Weyburn. Prevalence and Candy Man Rocket were in hot pursuit, and Brooklyn Strong was just behind that pair. None of those horses would factor into the final result. 15-1 shot Dynamic One was the first to move from the back, and he struck the front in the stretch and briefly looked home free, but 72-1 bomb Bourbonic came rumbling from last place to score a shocking victory by a head for Carmouche/Pletcher. Dynamic One was a tough luck loser and Crowded Trade caught Weyburn in the lane and was best of the rest in 3rd. Brooklyn Strong edged Prevalence for 5th and beaten favorite Risk Taking never got involved despite the race shape favoring closers. Market Maven was a tiring 8th and it was 10+ back to trailer Candy Man Rocket. This seemed like the weakest of the three Derby preps on April 3.


Top 25 Kentucky Derby Points Leaders (thru 4-3-21)

140 Points: Essential Quality

110 Points: Hot Rod Charlie

104 Points: Like the King

102 Points: Known Agenda

100 Points: Rock Your World, Bourbonic

74 Points: Medina Spirit

66 Points: Midnight Bourbon

60 Points: Weyburn

52 Points: Mandaloun

50 Points: Concert Tour, Highly Motivated, Helium

40 Points: Panadol, Soup and Sandwich, Dynamic One, Crowded Trade, Sainthood

34 Points: Rombauer, Proxy

32 Points: Hidden Stash

30 Points: Dream Shake

25 Points: O Besos

20 Points: Hozier, Hockey Dad


Upcoming Derby 2021 Points Races
Arkansas Derby (100-40-20-10) – April 10
Lexington (20-8-4-2) – April 10


Jarrod Horak’s “Exceptional Eleven” Kentucky Derby 2021 Contenders (4-9-21)

(1) ESSENTIAL QUALITY (Tapit – Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality)

Trainer – Brad Cox

Comments: He has been my top ranked Derby contender since day one and he has yet to taste defeat after five starts. His first start as a 3-year-old was delayed twice, and when he was finally able to run in the Southwest Stakes (G3), the juvenile champion stalked outside and easily prevailed. He can win from anywhere on the racetrack. If the pace is slow, he will make his presence felt throughout. If the fractions are hot, he will sit back and make you pay late, and he is just as comfortable stalking the pace. As as added bonus, he handled the wet track just fine in the Southwest. He stalked outside and pulled well clear in the lane that day. He completed his Derby preparations in the April 3 Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland, and he edged past stubborn pacesetter Highly Motivated in deep stretch to remain unbeaten.


(2) CONCERT TOUR (Street Sense – Purse Strings, by Tapit)

Latest Workout: 6f bullet in 1:12.80 (1/4) at Santa Anita Park on April 3.

Trainer – Bob Baffert

Comments: He was excellent in the Rebel Stakes (G2) on March 13. He showed a quick burst of speed out of the gate and took over immediately, and he seemed to catch race favorite Caddo River completely by surprise. He is now a perfect 3-for-3 for Baffert and horses with high cruising speed have been dominating the Kentucky Derby recently. He has worked twice since his Rebel victory and returns to Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 10. He will be less than even money in his final Derby prep.


(3) HOT ROD CHARLIE (Oxbow – Indian Miss, by Indian Charlie)

Trainer – Doug O’Neill

Latest Workout: 4f in 49.40 (42/67) at Santa Anita Park on April 3.

Comments: He really turned things around with the addition of blinkers in dirt routes. He graduated at one mile on dirt in his fourth career start at SA October 2020, and followed that up with a good rallying 2nd from an outer post in the BC Juvenile (G1). He made his 2021 bow in the Robert Lewis Stakes (G3) at SA on Jan. 30, and he rallied to finish 3rd by a neck. He shipped to Fair Grounds for the LA Derby (G2) and was a sharp prominent throughout winner. Doug O’Neill knows how to prepare a horse for the Kentucky Derby and this one seems to be getting good at the right time. He is back in California and had his first work since the LA Derby on April 3.


(4) ROCK YOUR WORLD (Candy Ride – Charm the Maker, by Empire Maker)

Trainer: John Sadler

Comments: This one seemingly came out of left field to win the SA Derby (G1). The unraced juvenile graduated in a turf sprint Jan. 1, and stretched out on the sod and scored again in the Pasadena Stakes Feb. 27. With Life Is Good out of the SA Derby, Sadler took a shot on the surface switch and boy did that ever work out. He got to the front early and kept on going in a sharp wire-to-wire victory on April 3. He heads to Kentucky with raw talent and speed on his side, but he is definitely short on experience and seasoning.


(5) MEDINA SPIRIT (Protonico – Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed)

Trainer – Bob Baffert

Comments: He is not your typical expensive yearling purchase with a flashy pedigree for Baffert. This overachiever has a big heart like Silver Charm and he just shows up every time and keeps battling all the way to the end. His stablemate Life Is Good was in complete command in the Sham (G3) but this one kept chipping away and made it close at the end. In the Robert Lewis Stakes (G3), he set the pace and put away the early challengers, and held off a stalker and a closer to hold on by a determined neck. He met Life Is Good again in the San Felipe but never got close to that one in a distant runner-up finish. He was the favorite in his final Derby prep the SA Derby (G1) and he stalked outside and ended up a clear 2nd.


(6) KNOWN AGENDA (Curlin – Byrama-GB, by Byron-GB)

Trainer – Todd Pletcher

Latest Workout: 4f in 50.25 (8/11) at Palm Beach Downs on April 9.

Comments: He was one of my original “exceptional 11” Derby contenders when I started my list in 2020, but I dropped him off after a disappointing effort in the Sam F. Davis (G3). He added blinkers and romped in a 9f optional claimer at the Gulf Feb. 26, and followed that up with a sharp stalk and pounce score in the Florida Derby (G1). The main reason I liked him to begin with was his stamina. He defeated Greatest Honour by a head in a 9f maiden event at the Big A last fall. Actually, he has now competed at the mile and an eighth four times with three wins, and blinkers have helped him focus while getting into the race earlier. If he does not win the Derby, look for him to skip the Preakness and point to the Belmont Stakes. The latter Triple Crown race has him name all over it given his long distance pedigree and relentless galloping stride.


(7) HIGHLY MOTIVATED (Into Mischief – Strong Incentive, by Warrior’s Reward)

Trainer: Chad Brown

Comments: Earned a strong number in the Nyquist Stakes on 11-6-20, and that was the best speed rating of any juvenile during the 2-day Breeders’ Cup World Championships. He made his much anticipated sophomore debut in the Gotham Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct on March 6, and in that one mile race around one turn, he had a bit of an uncomfortable trip from off the pace. Speed was strong in that race and he rallied for the show in a better than appears effort. He stretched out in the Blue Grass (G2) and almost stole the candy, but Essential Quality was just a bit better in the late going and gamely prevailed after a spirited stretch duel. He is talented but I am not sure about his ability to navigate a mile and a quarter if the pace is honest.


(8) MIDNIGHT BOURBON (Tiznow – Catch The Moon, by Malibu Moon)

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Latest Workout: 5f in 1:01.20 (5/11) at Churchill Downs on April 4.

Comments: You have to admire his consistency and his speed ratings improved in a trio of 2021 starts. Joe Talamo gave him a great ride and he was able control the pace from the rail in a one-length victory in the LeComte (G3) on Jan. 16. In his next start in the Risen Star (G2), he tracked the pace and grabbed a short lead, but Mandaloun wore him down and Proxy got past him for the place. He was in the hunt throughout and finished 2nd in the LA Derby (G2). I like his pedigree and early-pressing versatility but he does seem a bit one-paced. He has arrived at Churchill Downs and breezed under the Twin Spires April 4.


(9) MANDALOUN (Into Mischief – Brooch, by Empire Maker)

Trainer: Brad Cox

Latest Workout: 5f bullet in 58.80 (1/28) at Churchill Downs on April 10.

Comments: This one ran his record to 3-for-4 in the Risen Star (G2) and threw in a clunker at the worst possible moment in the LA Derby (G2). He tracked the pace outside and faded in the latter race, and that is not the way you want to wrap up Derby trail preparations. There will be many sharp horses heading into the first Saturday in May and he is not one of them. It is a shame because I have always liked this one and he seemed to have all the tools to make a run at the Derby prior to his last. He is at Churchill Downs and had his first workout under the Twin Spires April 3, and came right back to fire a bullet a week later. In a wide open Derby year, I will not completely dismiss his chances. He has a strong pedigree and ran just as fast as any of the other top Derby contenders in the Risen Star. He is flying way under the radar at this stage.


(10) LIKE THE KING (Palace Malice – Like a Queen, by Corinthian)

Trainer: Wesley Ward

Comments: Finished in the top three in all six starts and the versatile performer rallied for the win in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park on March 27. He is capable of setting the pace or stalking as well, and his consistency and running style versatility are valuable assets.


(11) SAINTHOOD (Mshawish – Lemon Hero, by Llemon Drop Kid)

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Latest Workout: 4f in 48.60 (15/36) at Keeneland on April 9.

Comments: This unraced juvenile started three times in 2021 and fired each time. He started out with a head defeat in his six furlong debut at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 9. He shipped to Fair Grounds, stretched out in distance, set the pace, and graduated by a nose as the even money favorite Feb. 13. He made his stakes debut in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) and he overcame an uncomfortable trip to finish a strong 2nd. He should have won at Turfway Park and it was a good sign that the lightly raced, inexperienced colt never gave up and surged late for the runner-up spot. He has upside and is improving rapidly.


THE NEXT NINE: (12) Helium, (13) Soup and Sandwich, (14) Bourbonic, (15) Dynamic One, (16) Rombauer, (17) Proxy, (18) Panadol, (19) Crowded Trade, (20) Weyburn

Article by Jarrod Horak

Jarrod Horak

Jarrod Horak posts stakes recaps from Del Mar and Santa Anita Park, along with full card recaps and free stakes picks from Southern and/or Northern California.