By Mike Farrell
The 2021 Triple Crown prep series concluded Saturday with a pair of upsets. Now comes the nerve-wracking three-week wait for the owners and trainers as we await the Kentucky Derby (G1).
The preliminaries are over. Now it is a matter of each camp keeping the runners healthy and happy until race day. Any hiccup at this point — injury or poor workout — would be disastrous.
It’s Derby time, and each 3-year-old gets only one crack at the sport’s grandest prize.
It’s also an exciting time for racing fans as we move deeper into spring and anticipate a return to normalcy. Barring a sudden pandemic setback, the Derby will return to its traditional calendar slot.
And so will fans at Churchill Downs, although in smaller numbers than in the past. The sports world is regrouping. The Masters returned to Augusta in April. Now it’s racing’s turn to reestablish a storied tradition on the first Saturday in May.
Spring is indeed the season for hope and optimism.
What have we learned after the final round of Derby qualifying races?
The most obvious answer: Essential Quality is the unquestioned, undisputed Derby favorite.
Prior to the Arkansas Derby (G1) on Saturday, several handicapping pundits speculated that Essential Quality and Concert Tour would vie for the roll of Derby favorite.
That debate ended abruptly when Concert Tour ran third as the 3-10 favorite while Super Stock powered to victory at 12-1 at Oaklawn Park.
The defeat wiped much of the shine off the Concert Tour bandwagon.
While the Blue Grass (G2) performance was less than spectacular, Essential Quality got the job done to remain undefeated. The champion juvenile hasn’t missed a beat as a 3-year-old. Until someone knocks him off, Essential Quality is the horse to fear.
Here’s a parlor game we can all play: project the post time Derby odds for Essential Quality. Since I posed the proposition, it’s only fair that I take the first stab. Let’s start the ball rolling at 7-5. It would not be shocking to see the final price dip below that quote. Anything above is excellent value and should be wagered with enthusiasm.
Super Stock has been lurking on the fringes of the division, occasionally jumping up to hit the board in races like the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) last fall at Keeneland.
The son of Dialed In moved front and center Saturday with the upset score in the Arkansas Derby, his first victory since a minor stakes at Lone Star Park back in August.
Let’s not be too hasty in dismissing his Kentucky Derby prospects.
He is trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, who knows a thing or two about getting a horse ready for a major challenge.
The most encouraging aspect is that Super Stock thrived on the added distance in the 9-furlong Arkansas Derby while more heralded runners like Concert Tour and Caddo River hit a wall.
“That horse that won came running today,” Concert Tour’s jockey Joel Rosario said.
We’re not suggesting Super Stock can duplicate that effort on Derby Day, but he might be a key value play to fill slots on your trifecta and superfecta tickets.
The resounding sound coming out of Saturday’s Lexington Stakes (G3) was the thud of Derby hopes crashing and burning among the losers who needed the 20 available points to qualify for the race.
Better luck next time Unbridled Honor. Hockey Dad needs another rink. Proxy picked up only 2 points with a fourth-place finish, leaving him four shy of the 20th and final spot in the field.
On a sloppy day at Keeneland, King Fury, a mud-loving son of Curlin, splashed home at 18-1. The 20 points for the win moved him into 28th place. He’d need a raft of defections to turn the Lexington win into a Derby slot.
Even in this season or renewal and optimism, that’s hoping for a lot.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.