No one likes picking the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, though it has proved to be a profitable wager over the past few years.
In 2013, Orb began a run of six consecutive post-time favorites to win the Derby, ending with Justify’s victory in 2018. Improbable was the favorite in 2019 and finished fifth, and 2020 top choice Tiz the Law came in second.
Essential Quality, trained by Louisville native Brad Cox, was established as the 2-1 favorite for Saturday’s Run for the Roses and clearly is the horse to beat with his 5-for-5 record that includes a victory last September at Churchill Downs.
Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World is the No. 2 choice at 4-1 odds, followed by Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie (6-1), Blue Grass runner-up Highly Motivated (12-1) and Florida Derby winner Known Agenda (13-1).
Here’s what to know about those four contenders:
Rock Your World
Trainer John Sadler took an unconventional path to the Derby, as the undefeated Rock Your World didn’t race as a 2-year-old and started his career with two races on the turf.
“We took a little different road than everybody else, but it was actually by design,” Sadler said. “It just happened to work.”
Rock Your World shined in his move from turf to dirt, winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby by 4 ¼ lengths over the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit. Rock Your World earned a 100 Beyer Speed Figure in the victory, the only horse in the Kentucky Derby field to reach a triple-digit figure in his career.
“We decided the time to try the big race was the Santa Anita Derby because if you’re good enough in the Santa Anita Derby you can go on,” Sadler said. “He took that step very nicely and ran very well, so here we are.”
Sadler is hopeful Rock Your World can follow a similar path as Animal Kingdom and Barbaro, horses who began their careers on the turf before winning the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert said he was impressed with Rock Your World at Santa Anita.
“He surprised us because he’s a big long, lanky horse and bred for the turf,” Baffert said. “But he’s by Candy Ride, and those Candy Rides — if you get a good one — they’re really good. He’s fast and has a lot of speed, a big long-jumping horse. A mile and a quarter is not going to be a problem for him.”
The son of Curlin disappointed with a fifth-place finish in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis in his 3-year-old debut. Trainer Todd Pletcher decided to add blinkers after that race, and the colt has prospered with a pair of victories, including a 2 ¾-length triumph over Soup and Sandwich in the Florida Derby.
“I love the way Known Agenda finished in the Florida Derby,” Pletcher said. “It seemed like he just kind of lowered down and took off the last sixteenth of a mile. He’s really improved since we put blinkers on. He’s gotten a little more focused, and he’s maturing and getting a little more professional with each start.”
Pletcher’s excitement was tempered a bit Tuesday when Known Agenda drew the No. 1 post position for the Derby. The No. 1 post hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Ferdinand in 1986, though a new starting gate that was introduced last year was designed to allow more running room for inside post positions.
“With the new gate, we’re hopeful that things will be better than they were in the past and the post won’t be that bad,” Pletcher said. “He had an inside trip in the Florida Derby, and he handled it very professionally.”
Hot Rod Charlie
It’s been six weeks since Hot Rod Charlie won the Louisiana Derby, but trainer Doug O’Neill isn’t concerned about rust.
“Sometimes less is more, right?” O’Neill said. “You look back 20 years ago, and those horses ran 10 times as 2-year-olds and multiple times before this race, but I just think the environment we’re in that it’s best to lean on, ‘Less is more.’ We’re seeing good results that way, too.”
A son of Oxbow, Hot Rod Charlie needed four races to break his maiden and then entered the Triple Crown scene by finishing second – at 94-1 odds – behind Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at Keeneland.
He made his 3-year-old debut with a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita before shipping to Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby score.
“Seeing how well Charlie has traveled, it made us so comfortable to bring him back to California, train there where we’re comfortable the weather would be pretty nice on a daily basis and then ship (to Louisville) after his last work,” O’Neill said. “You learn along the way.”
The son of Into Mischief battled Essential Quality in a classic stretch duel in the Blue Grass before ultimately losing by a neck.
Trainer Chad Brown said Highly Motivated gained valuable experience in his first two-turn race.
“It was only his second start of the year, so I was looking for a little more fitness,” Brown said. “I think he got that with a good, hard race into him. … I think this horse is really going to move forward off that race.”
Highly Motivated never has finished worse than third in five career races, sporting a 2-2-1 record, but Brown knows Essential Quality is the one to beat Saturday.
“He ran super, and I have a lot of respect for Essential Quality,” Brown said. “Obviously being undefeated, he’s done nothing wrong. He’s a super-talented horse and a deserving favorite in the race.”
Follow Jason Frakes on Twitter: @KentuckyDerbyCJ.