Kentucky Derby Picks 2021: Predictions for Projected Lineup at Churchill Downs

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2021

FILE - Jockey Luis Saez rides Essential Quality to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile horse race at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., in this Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, file photo. Essential Quality is expected to be the first gray horse favored to win the Kentucky Derby in 25 years. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The 2021 Kentucky Derby is Essential Quality's to lose, at least in the eyes of oddsmakers.

Following the post position draw, the Blue Grass Stakes winner is 2-1 to claim first at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Rock Your World (5-1) and Known Agenda (6-1) are the next-closest contenders.

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Essential Quality's success on the track isn't limited to the Blue Grass Stakes. He has already collected four graded stakes victories, starting with the Breeders' Futurity last October and continuing with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Southwest Stakes.

Being the betting favorite didn't matter much over the past two years. Improbable was fourth in 2019, and Tiz the Law came up just short in 2020, running second to Authentic. Before that, however, the horse with the lowest odds reigned supreme for six straight editions.

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Favorites have either won (four times) or finished second (four times) in eight of the last ten Triple Crown races.

At the very least, Essential Quality is a safe bet to place in the 2021 Derby.

Rock Your World can't match that track record, but he put together an excellent performance in his only graded stakes appearance, the Santa Anita Derby on April 3. The colt led the field for the majority of the race and pulled away down the final stretch.

That Essential Quality and Rock Your World will start right next to one another should make for a fun dynamic Saturday.

Highly Motivated is another horse to watch. The three-year-old finished third in the Gotham Stakes and was runner-up to Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes.

Trainer Chad C. Brown and jockey Javier Castellano have Triple Crown victories on their resume, but neither has tasted the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. Castellano is 0-for-14 in Louisville, Kentucky, while Brown is winless in five tries.

That doesn't bode well for Highly Motivated, but you'd expect Castellano's luck in particular to turn around.

Like Highly Motivated, Midnight Bourbon could be a good value play at 20-1. The Steve Asmussen-trained colt took the Lecomte Stakes and hasn't finished worse than third in any of his five graded stakes appearances. Even in lesser events, that kind of consistency can't be overlooked.



Win: Essential Quality

Place: Highly Motivated

Show: Rock Your World