The bets are flowing in from around the world, including one that could total $4 million, a crowd of about 50,000 will be at Churchill Downs, many sipping Mint Juleps, and the 147th Kentucky Derby returns to the first Saturday in May.
Yes, the Derby is upon us, and the weather is looking pretty good for the Run for the Roses – partly cloudy with temperatures in the high 70s-low 80s and just a 2% chance of rain. Post time is 6:57 p.m. ET and will be televised live by NBC Sports.
A full field of 20 3-year-olds is set to break from the gate, with unbeaten Essential Quality the 2-1 morning line favorite over a group that includes three other Grade 1 winners – 5-1 second choice Rock Your World (Santa Anita Derby), 6-1 third choice Known Agenda (Florida Derby), and 30-1 longshot Super Stock (Arkansas Derby).
Essential Quality, an eye-catching gray son of Tapit, won a pair of Grade 1’s in 2020, the Breeders’ Futurity and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, both at Keeneland. He also won the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 3 to boost his record to 5-0.
Owned by Dubai Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin, seeking its first Derby victory since beginning its quest 25 years ago, Essential Quality is trained by Brad Cox and will be ridden by Luis Saez.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has a chance to win a record-breaking seventh Derby victory with 15-1 shot Medina Spirit, summed up the field like this: “Brad’s got all the ammo.”
Cox will not only send out Essential Quality, who breaks from post 14, he’ll also saddle 15-1 shot Mandaloun, who won the Grade 2 Risen Star before an inexplicable sixth in the Louisiana Derby.
“There’s 19 Derby horses and one Derby winner. We want the Derby winner. We don’t just want a Derby starter,’’ said Cox, who grew up a few blocks from Churchill Downs and sends out his first Derby starters. “We’re very happy to be in this position. We have two great chances and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Confidence abounds for the most part
So is every other owner, trainer, and jockey – no matter the odds. The field includes six at 50-1, three at 30-1, and four at 20-1.
“It’s hard to say I’m confident with a 50-1 shot, but I do think he’ll show up,’’ said Robertino Diodoro, the trainer of Keepmeinmind, one of the final entries to the field after a few late dropouts. “He’ll come running.”
Rock Your World and Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby winner Helium (50-1) are also undefeated entering the 1 ¼-mile Derby. Rock Your World, trained by John Sadler, won his first two starts on the turf before a gate-to-wire, 4 ¼-length victory over favorite Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby.
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“We’re going over there with our strongest shot,’’ said Sadler, who saddled four previous Derby starters. “We had a couple of years where we were big prices, where we wanted to be in there because we were qualified, but this’ll be the best horse I’ve walked over there with.”
Joel Rosario has the ride on Rock Your World, replacing Umberto Rispoli, who was aboard for the Santa Anita Derby win. Rispoli will ride in his first Derby, gaining the mount on 50-1 Brooklyn Strong.
Pletcher has 4 in the field
Todd Pletcher is a two-time Derby winner with a record 55 starters. He’ll add four more to his total, and hopefully a third Derby win with Known Agenda, Sainthood (50-1), Dynamic One (20-1), and Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Bourbonic (30-1).
Known Agenda who has come into his own with the addition of blinkers, drew the not-so-popular rail, but will be ridden by the nation’s top rider in Irad Ortiz, Jr., looking for his first Derby win.
Pletcher was fine with the posts for Sainthood (post 5, 50-1) and Dynamic One (post 11, 20-1), hoped for a better post than 20 for Bourbonic, and was not thrilled with Known Agenda’s draw.
“No question, it’s not the post we wanted but we do think it’s a little less of a disadvantage now with the new starting gate,’’ Pletcher said. “So, we’ll try to work out the best trip we can, the shortest way around there, and hopefully gets a clean run at it.
Trainer Doug O’Neill, also a two-time Derby winner, feels his entry Hot Rod Charlie is ready for a bust-out race. With Flavien Prat aboard, the son of a Preakness winner (Oxbow) seems to be the hot horse at 8-1. In the Louisiana Derby, he beat Kentucky Derby entries Midnight Bourbon, O Besos, and Mandaloun.
Asmussen looks to end 0-for-21 Derby run
That brings us to Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who conditions Midnight Bourbon – never out of the money in seven career starts – and Super Stock, owned by his father Keith and Erv Woolsey. Steve’s son Keith rode Super Stock to victory in the Texas Thoroughbred Futurity last year. The colt will be ridden by Asmussen’s go-to rider Ricardo Santana, Jr.
Of Midnight Bourbon, Asmussen said: “He’s sitting on the race of his life.”
Super Stock is more of a family affair. “It feels like something bigger than you. It’s my parents’ story at this stage, and I feel very excited to be a part of it.
A win on Saturday is likely to make him forget about his 0-for-21 record in the Derby.
Wagering is expected to be huge for the Derby, which brings in millions of fans who do not know much about racing other than placing a bet on Derby Day. Last year, there were no spectators at the race due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused a change of dates of the Triple Crown races that made the Derby the second leg of the Triple Crown run on Sept. 5.
So far, the biggest bet is set to be made by James “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a Houston furniture magnate and horse owner – known mainly for Runhappy, the 2015 champion sprinter whose name appears as the sponsor for races and race meets. Mack plans to wager the amount of mattress purchases of $3,000 or more made during a specified timeframe on the Derby favorite – Essential Quality would be that horse.
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McIngvale has made similar wagers on Super Bowls and World Series (when the Houston Astros are involved). He estimates a minimum wager of $2 million and up to $4 million.
“This is the first horse-racing event I’ve been able to use as a promotion,” said McIngvale.
Also, a mystery bettor has wagered a record $1 million in bitcoin on a Derby horse whose name was not revealed, according to BUSR, an online gaming company.
“This is by far the largest transaction of bitcoin made for a wager on the Kentucky Derby and perhaps the largest bitcoin wager on any sporting event. Full stop,” BUSR spokesperson James Ross said.
While Baffert believes Essential Quality is the horse to beat, he knows anything van happen in a large field of 20.
“There’s a lot of speed this year, Baffert said. “It’s still wide open. This could be one of those Giacomo years. You never know.”
It’s almost post time.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.