LOUISVILLE — Essential Quality is the one to beat in today’s $3 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Undefeated in five career starts, the Brad Cox-trainee is the reigning 2-year-old Eclipse Champion and has turned in nothing but strong performances. However, he’s not unstoppable and there are 18 horses (after the Friday scratch of King Fury) ready to take on the challenge at 6:57 p.m. this evening.
The Kentucky Derby is a unique betting race because it forces handicappers to judge the horses on potential, not just past performance. None of these horses have ever attempted the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby or the traffic of a 19-horse field. It means that the best horse doesn’t always win.
But which of the talent-rich field might prevent Blue Grass Stakes winner and Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality from giving Cox his first Kentucky Derby win in as many tries? Maybe Chad Brown’s Highly Motivated, who lost his wire-to-wire lead in the final furlong of the Blue Grass Stakes to Essential Quality and missed the win by a neck.
Highly Motivated is the only horse in the Derby field to have earned three straight three-digit Brisnet speed figures, staying consistent with a 102 in the Nyquist Stakes, Gotham Stakes and the Blue Grass. If he were to keep improving, he would not only give his trainer his first Kentucky Derby win, but also be the first horse to win from post 17.
Rock Your World, trained by John Sadler, is undefeated in three career starts, including the April 3 Santa Anita Derby where he beat Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit. The dark bay son of Candy Ride has been an eye-catcher this week on the grounds at Churchill Downs. The real question is whether or not this California runner will be able to find success so far away from home.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has sent out 55 starters in the Kentucky Derby and won twice (Super Saver 2010, Always Dreaming 2017). He has four starters in today’s race, including Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, who earned a 101 Brisnet speed figure for the effort. The downfall to Known Agenda is his post position on the rail, but with the new starting gate built specifically for the Kentucky Derby, post No. 1 is not the death sentence it once was. So, no need to throw him out of consideration based on post position.
Doug O’Neil’s Hot Rod Charlie is another with good potential to prevent the favorite from taking home the roses. Although he was slow to get started in his career, taking four tries to get his first win, he’s really turned up the gas since adding blinkers and stretching out with a longer distance. He held off a late challenge from Midnight Bourbon and O Besos to win the Louisiana Derby and battled between Medina Spirit and Roman Centurian in the Robert B. Lewis, finishing third but only losing by a neck. He could be close to the pace and not shy away in traffic, putting him in position to pounce at the finish.
Finally, could Cox’s own Mandaloun be the challenger to test Essential Quality? He threw in a clunker in the Louisiana Derby last out, but had done nothing wrong in his prior starts. At the high odds he’s likely to have at post time, he might be worth putting on a ticket.
147TH KENTUCKY DERBY
6:50 p.m. today at Churchill Downs, Louisville Horses, with jockey in parentheses, and odds, are listed from the rail out.
1. Known Agenda (Irad Ortiz Jr.) 18-1
2. Like the King (Drayden Van Dyke) 69-1
3. Brooklyn Strong (Umberto Rispoli) 63-1
4. Keepmeinmind (David Cohen) 61-1
5. Sainthood (Corey Lanerie) 47-1
6. O Besos (Marcelino Pedroza) 52-1
7. Mandaloun (Florent Geroux) 44-1
8. Medina Spirit (John Velazquez) 17-1
9. Hot Rod Charlie (Flavien Prat) 8-1
10. Midnight Bourbon (Mike Smith) 18-1
11. Dynamic One (Jose Ortiz) 51-1
12. Helium (Julien Leparoux) 57-1
13. Hidden Stash (Rafael Bejarano) 44-1
14. Essential Quality (Luis Saez) 1-1
15. Rock Your World (Joel Rosario) 9-2
16. King Fury (Brian Hernandez Jr.) SCR
17. Highly Motivated (Javier Castellano) 18-1
18. Super Stock (Ricardo Santana Jr.) 50-1
19. Soup and Sandwich (Tyler Gaffalione) 35-1
20. Bourbonic (Kendrick Carmouche) 37-1