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Kentucky Derby Horses: The Field’s Top Contenders

The contenders among Kentucky Derby horses will race for glory at Churchill Downs.

With the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby fast approaching, it’s time to look at all of the Kentucky Derby horses and top contenders for the first jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown at Churchill Downs.

After a pandemic that moved the Kentucky Derby from the first Saturday of May to the first Saturday of September last year, a sense of normality is returning. Last year the Bob Baffert-trained Authentic won the Derby, returning $18.80 for the win.

How Many Horses are in the Kentucky Derby?

It appears we will have a full field of 20 Kentucky Derby contenders in 2021 competing in the most exciting two minutes in sports. The post position draw was Tuesday, April 27.

Last year, three late scratches brought the field down to 15. In the previous 16 years, we had a field of 18 or more, including nine times with a full field of 20, making for one of the best wagering races of the year for horseplayers.

How Old are Kentucky Derby Horses?

The Kentucky Derby is restricted to three-year-olds, meaning there is only one chance to take home the Roses. What makes the race unique is attempting to solve the handicapping puzzle of a large field of generally lightly raced three-year-olds who have never traveled 1¼ miles in their careers.

Most Kentucky Derby winners have a foundation of several starts as a juvenile, and two to three prep races as a three-year-old before the first Saturday of May.

There are a few exceptions. Justify, the winner of the 2018 Kentucky Derby, was the first to do so without racing as a juvenile since Apollo in 1882. The Bob Baffert trainee had just three starts under his belt going into the Run for the Roses. Big Brown won the 2008 Derby with just three starts.

What Horses are the 2021 Kentucky Derby Contenders?

Let’s take a look at the top 2021 Kentucky Derby contenders:

Essential Quality   +275

This colt checks all the boxes and is the early betting favorite for the Kentucky Derby at Bovada at +275. The Brad Cox trainee was the champion two-year-old of 2020, capping off his season by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

The colt won both of his preps this year, taking the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park in his three-year-old debut and then won the Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland by a hard-fought neck over Highly Motivated. Cox has become one of the top conditioners in the game, and this will be his first year with Derby starters. His other contenders are Mandaloun and possibly Caddo River.

Rock Your World   +475

This colt burst onto the Kentucky Derby scene by winning the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 2. His early Derby odds have dropped to +475, good for second choice among the Kentucky Derby 2021 horses. The colt raced on turf in his first two starts. He broke his maiden on grass in his debut on January 1 and then won the Pasadena going a mile on turf on February 27.

The colt has the distinction of being the only 2021 Kentucky Derby horse that owns a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure with his 100 he earned in his Santa Anita Derby victory. His trainer, John Sadler, is 0-for-4 with his Derby starters, the most recent a 14th-place finish with Candy Boy in 2014.

Known Agenda   +750

No trainer in the history of the Kentucky Derby has started more runners than Todd Pletcher, who has started 55 runners with just two wins — Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017. He likely will start four this year, led by Known Agenda, the winner of the Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park in his last outing.

The colt made three starts as a juvenile, running third in the Remsen (G3) in his stakes debut. The colt put it all together in his last outing and comes into the Derby with the right running style to win the race.

Hot Rod Charlie   +800

This Doug O’Neill trainee won the Louisiana Derby (G2) in his last start and his 99 Beyer Speed Figure is topped only by Rock Your World’s 100. This colt was beaten just three-quarters of a length in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last fall at Keeneland at whopping odds of 94-1. His three-year-old debut this year came in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita where he was beaten a neck and a nose in a third-place finish.

He now comes back off a 42-day break; the last Derby winner to win off such a break was Animal Kingdom in 2011 and we must go back to Needles in 1956 to find another. (Last year Authentic won the Derby off a 49-day break but let’s not forget that race came in September and it was his fifth start of the year). O’Neill has started six runners in the Derby and has won with a pair — I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016.

Highly Motivated   +1200

This colt gave Essential Quality all he could handle in the Blue Grass. The Chad Brown trainee set the early fractions and battled on gamely in the stretch to come up just a neck short. The colt came off a four-month break to run third in the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct going a one-turn mile in his first start of the year.

In the Gotham, he bobbled coming out of the gate and made a mild late run. There is plenty of early speed in the Derby this year and this colt will likely need to come from off the pace like he did in the Gotham. Brown is 0-for-5 with his Derby starters, the best finish a second with Good Magic in 2018.

Medina Spirit   +1400

As usual, early this season Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had a barn full of 2021 Kentucky Derby contenders, but now that the dust has cleared, he is down to just one. Medina Spirit gives Baffert a chance to become the only trainer in the history of the race to win it seven times.

The colt was no match for Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby, checking in second and beaten 4¼ lengths. Two back he was a distant second to his stablemate Life Is Good in the San Felipe (G2), the winner now off the Derby trail with an injury. Medina Spirit did win the Robert B. Lewis three back. His numbers are coming up light but when you have Baffert calling the shots, there is a chance this colt can be in the mix.

Who are the Live Long Shots?

In what appears to be a wide-open edition of the Run for the Roses, there is no shortage of live long shots among the 2021 Kentucky Derby horses to consider once the final field is drawn and the post positions are known.

Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Super Stock is sitting at +2500 in early Kentucky Derby wagering at Bovada. His stablemate Midnight Bourbon is listed at +2000. The colt ran second in the Louisiana Derby. Steve Asmussen, a Hall of Fame trainer, has racked up a 0-for-21 mark in the Kentucky Derby, his best finishes coming with runners-up Nehro in 2011 and Lookin At Lee in 2017.

Cox and Pletcher are Loaded

While Cox has the favorite in Essential Quality, he also will send out Mandaloun (+2200), who was the beaten favorite in the Louisiana Derby where he was a disappointing sixth. He stamped his ticket to Louisville by winning the Risen Star (G2) in February. Cox is still on the fence about starting Arkansas Derby runner-up Caddo River (+7000).

It took Pletcher four races to get Dynamic One (+3500) his maiden win, but the colt is maturing fast and his head loss in the Wood Memorial was solid. That race was won by his stablemate Bourbonic, who returned $146.50 for a $2 win wager. Bourbonic is at +4000 at Bovada in early Kentucky Derby betting odds.

When is the Kentucky Derby?

The 147th Kentucky Derby is on Saturday, May 1. Coverage begins on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app at 12:30 p.m. ET and will move from NBCSN to NBC at 2:30 p.m. Post time for the 2021 Kentucky Derby is set for approximately 6:57 p.m. ET.

Coming up later this week, I will break down the latest betting odds and news about the Kentucky Derby 2021 horses. Next week I will have my 2021 Kentucky Derby predictions and best bets.