One of the first things to realize when breaking down your Kentucky Derby betting prospects is that this isn’t your father’s race. And his race wasn’t his father’s race.
That’s not to say that a Sunday Silence, who won the 1989 Derby, would be out of place at this year’s post. Nor would a Riva Ridge (1972). Or a Northern Dancer (1964). And that’s putting aside for the moment the Triple Crown legends: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978).
The Points System
Icons stand the test of the time. But it takes a particular genus of Thoroughbred to win a Kentucky Derby in the points era. In 2013, Churchill Downs changed the nature of Derby qualifying. Out went the old way: ranking candidates based on graded-stakes earnings. In came the new way: ranking candidates based on points earned in designated races.
This eliminated the sprinters who blazed fast trails and cashed purses. Under the old qualifying format, some Derbys turned into a suicidal games of speed chicken, where two, three or more horses would blast out of the gate like they were shot out of a cannon. They’d set insane fractions, burn each other out somewhere in or around the far turn, then watch helplessly as a closer sailed in from 15 lengths back, went by them, and stood for pictures in the winner’s circle.
This opened up Derbys to freak-of-nature events: like 50-1 Giacomo outdueling 71-1 Closing Argument to win in 2005. And both beat the vastly superior Afleet Alex, who illustrated this fact by winning the Preakness and Belmont.
There was claiming race mainstay Charismatic, needing to win a race 13 days before the Derby just to get in the 1999 Derby. In at 31-1, he beat Menifee by a neck. There was 2011, when winner Animal Kingdom was a 21-1 afterthought in a race where overwhelming favorite Uncle Mo scratched the day before.
And nobody forgets 2009, when an unheralded New Mexico gelding named Mine That Bird went from losing his first two starts of the year—the Borderland Derby and Sunland Derby—to winning the Kentucky Derby by 6 ½ lengths. The 50-1 moonshot (who would never win again) did so with a last-to-first stretch drive that shocked even announcer Tom Durkin.
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Born to Run
In the points era, claiming-race refugees, 50-1 geldings who lose the Borderland Derby and other freaks of nature are exactly that. It takes a special horse to successfully navigate a rigorous winter and early spring of preps that put a premium on stamina, tactical speed, and picking your spots. And this in an era where many top-shelf Thoroughbreds define the term “lightly raced.”
We mean speed in all its racing definitions. Don’t count Country House’s asterisk bridle from his promotion to the 2019 title in the wake of Maximum Security’s DQ for interference. Orb’s victory in the 2013 Derby made him the first and last closer to find the winner’s circle in the points era.
Since then, it’s been pace-pressers, stalkers and the occasional pace-setter like last year’s pandemic Derby winner—Authentic—wearing roses and winning immortality. You have to be at or near the front to be a front-line Derby contender in today’s points era.
Checking the Boxes
Looking at this year’s Derby through the modern prism, four horses check the boxes a modern Derby champion needs to win:
- Bring your Beyer and Brisnet. Horse Racing Nation’s Ron Flatter points out that every Derby champion in the points era except Country House had at least a 95 Beyer Speed Figure and 100 Brisnet. Horses with Beyers in the 80s or sub-100 Brisnet numbers lack the raw speed and class needed to win a Kentucky Derby. Ten horses in our field have a 95+ Beyer on the resume. Six have a triple-digit BRIS. Only four have both.
- Tactical speed. This means a horse can use speed to his advantage—especially over 10 furlongs. He can lead, stalk or press, depending on the race. Former turf writer Jennie Rees created the Final Fractions Theory. It says if a horse had a fast finish at the end of his last prep, he’ll bring momentum in that extra furlong in the Derby.
- Be an E or an E/P. These designations under the Quirin Speed Points system type a horse by running style. Every points-era winner but Orb and Country House was an E or an E/P. They typed out as Early pace-setters or Early/Pressers, comfortable on the lead or within one to three lengths. That style wins Derbys in the points era. These horses run at or near the front, not navigating a 20-horse sig alert at the top of the stretch from 15 lengths back. This includes 11 of the 20 in the field.
Field of 4
When you break it down further, this narrows 20 down to four:
- Essential Quality, the 2-1 favorite
- Rock Your World (5-1)
- Hot Rod Charlie (8-1)
- Highly Motivated (10-1)
You’ll note that Florida Derby winner Known Agenda—the 6-1 third favorite—misses the cut. For that, he can thank his career-best 94 Beyer, one off the threshold.
Now, let’s add another hurdle: winning a 100-point prep race. Every Derby winner in the points era has one of these on the stall wall. So farewell to Highly Motivated. He finished a gutsy second to Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes, earning 40 points and a Derby berth. But alas, he departs with lovely parting gifts.
Our final hurdle shared by every Derby winner since 2013 is being undefeated as a 3-year-old. Alas, we must say good-bye to Hot Rod Charlie. He finished third—albeit in a three-across photo finish—in January’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.
That leaves Essential Quality and Rock Your World. They’re a combined 5-for-5 this year, with Essential Quality winning the Southwest Stakes (G3) as a tune-up to running down Highly Motivated in deep stretch of the Blue Grass.
Rock Your World’s path was more eclectic. He won his first two races on turf, including the Pasadena Stakes. He proved a good horse can learn new tricks when he manhandled the Santa Anita Derby by 4 ¼ lengths in his first start on dirt. That brought him the best Beyer in the field—100—along with his punched Derby ticket.
From there, it’s a matter of pitting Essential Quality’s overall class and adaptable running style; he’s won races in a variety of ways, against Rock Your World’s athleticism and speed edge.
To this point, both have passed every test, handled every obstacle and illustrated why they’re the favorites in this Derby era.
But first, the Oaks! Read Dawn’s analysis of Friday’s Kentucky Oaks right here.
How to Watch
What: The 147th Kentucky Derby
Where: Churchill Downs, Lexington, Kentucky
When: Saturday, May 1, 2021
Watch: Live coverage of the Run for the Roses will begin at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports Network. Post time is at 6:57 p.m. ET.
Throw a classic Derby Day gala with tips from Churchill Downs. Click here for recipes, party games for kids and adults, betting tips, and a whole lot more. And check out the post positions for the 147th Kentucky Derby: