Kentucky Derby 2021: Top Contenders and Unheralded Horses in Lineup Field

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistApril 27, 2021

FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020 file photo, horses run during a race before the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The Kentucky Derby is back on the first Saturday in May 2021, slowly bringing with it the sights, sounds and rituals familiar to Louisville. And local officials and business owners are hopeful it translates into better cash flow after the coronavirus pandemic upended the Derby’s schedule the previous year. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The favored horses at the Kentucky Derby have been the most profitable ones of late. 

A string of champions, led by Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify, won at Churchill Downs after starting the race at, or near, the top of the odds chart. 

Every once in a while you will stumble into a long-shot winner such as Country House, but the 2019 winner only took the prize after a disqualification. 

The more likely positions for unheralded horses are second, third and fourth to fill out exacta, trifecta and superfecta wagers. 

Last year's third-place finisher, Mr. Big News, is the perfect example of a long shot showing up in the top three. He went off at 50-1 to win and finished directly behind Authentic and Tiz the Law. 


Top Contenders

Essential Quality

The 2021 field does not carry the depth of favored horses that last year's race did with Tiz the Law, Authentic and Honor A.P.

Essential Quality should be the clear-cut favorite when the starting gate drops on Saturday afternoon. He enters on the back of five straight victories and earned the most points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. 

The Brad H. Cox-trained colt won three races at 1 1/16 miles and then captured the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass Stakes. He will be asked to run a bit longer on Saturday, as the Derby is a 1 1/4-mile competition. 

The likely pre-race favorite will try to bring home the first Derby win for Cox, who has a slew of Breeders' Cup victories on his resume, including the 2020 juvenile victory with Essential Quality. 

Winning the Run for the Roses will be the toughest task for Essential Quality yet when it comes to length and field depth, but it's hard to not include him on your betting slip. 


Hot Rod Charlie

Hot Rod Charlie does not boast the same track record as Essential Quality, but no horse in the field has a comparable resume. 

The Doug O'Neill-trained colt put himself into Derby contention with a triumph at the Louisiana Derby on March 20. 

The first win in three races for Hot Rod Charlie came in an eight-horse field, including Kentucky Derby participants O Besos, Midnight Bourbon and Mandaloun. 

While he does not possess the volume of wins and races, he does have experience running against top competition from six weeks ago. 

Hot Rod Charlie also has the benefit of an experienced jockey in Flavien Prat, who guided Country House near the front of the field in 2019.

Prat and Country House ended up winning thanks to Maximum Security's disqualification, but it still speaks to the jockey's talent that he pushed a long shot into the top three of a Triple Crown race. 


Unheralded Horses

Midnight Bourbon

Let's be honest here: Midnight Bourbon is going to have some casual bettors on his side purely because of his name. That's one way to approach the long shots, but he also has some results to back up an outright bet. 

The colt took second behind Hot Rod Charlie at the Louisiana Derby and produced three consecutive top-three finishes. If he lands a favorable spot in the starting gate, he could jump out to the front and get around the traffic that comes with a 20-horse field. 

Midnight Bourbon also holds a jockey advantage, with two-time Kentucky Derby winner Mike Smith aboard. If his experience translates to the ride Saturday, they could cook up the right combination for an upset victory.


Dynamic One

Trainer Todd Pletcher has the best odds to land in the winner's circle since he has the most horses entered into the field. 

Dynamic One is one of the three mounts Pletcher will take to Churchill Downs. None of them will be favored to win, but they could all make some noise at the Derby. 

Dynamic One took second in his only start at the Wood Memorial on April 3, a race that is 1 1/8 miles. The experience with a longer race should help. 

Just like Midnight Bourbon, the colt has the benefit of having one of the top jockeys in the field on board. Jose Ortiz has two Breeders' Cup victories, a win at the 2017 Belmont Stakes and a 2019 Kentucky Oaks triumph.

The victory at Churchill Downs two years ago could help the 27-year-old navigate Dynamic One through the pack. 


Statistics obtained from KentuckyDerby.com.