LOUISVILLE – This year’s $3 million Grade 1 Kentucky Derby is already starting to feel like a return to normalcy.
The buzz in the air that’s been missing at historic Churchill Downs for many months due to the pandemic has returned in full force.
Those fortunate to secure a limited capacity seat under the Twin Spires for Saturday’s Derby will be treated to a wide-open affair in which anything can happen.
The return to its familiar date on the First Saturday in May, after last year’s postponed race was run on Labor Day weekend without fans, has given Louisville a much-needed boost.
The Run for the Roses will be carried by NBC (Ch. 2) in a five-hour telecast starting at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Post time for the Derby is 6:57 p.m. The forecast is expected to be sunny in the mid-70s for a crowd estimated to be around 50,000.
Essential Quality is the morning-line favorite at 2-1, but it might not be that clear-cut.
“It’s kind of an open year. You can put question marks on several different horses," trainer John Sadler said in his barn office Thursday. "The favorite’s the favorite, that’s kind of baked in, but other than that a lot of guys have reason to go over there and have a chance."
Sadler’s horse, Rock Your World (5-1) is the one that has caught my eye and wowed me since his Santa Anita Derby victory. The son of Candy Ride dominated that field after his first two career wins were on the turf.
Sadler said his lightly raced horse has the key ingredients to tame the mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance. He comes off an impressive work on Saturday at Santa Anita before shipping into Louisville earlier in the week.
“We expect him to run a good race, he’s a relatively fresh horse,” said Sadler. “He’s having a good week.”
When Bob Baffert pulled Concert Tour off the Derby Trail, jockey Joel Rosario suddenly became available and Sadler made the call to replace up-and-coming Umberto Rispoli on Rock Your World. The two have combined to win 243 times and more than $20 million in earnings together so the change made sense. Rosario won the 2013 Derby aboard Orb.
“It was a tough decision because we like Rispoli so much, he’s rode my horses in California extremely well. It was just one of those things where everything aligned,” Sadler said.
Rock Your World is able to run all day, has Rosario in the irons and breaks from a very good post position to garner position early. The decision to back Rock Your World wasn’t a difficult one.
Race favorite Essential Quality comes into the Derby as the undefeated 2-year-old champion, winning all five of his career races. Trained by last year’s Eclipse winning trainer, Brad Cox, the gray son of Tapit is a deserving favorite after winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in his final prep race.
Cox grew up just blocks from Churchill Downs on Euclid Avenue in the south end of Louisville. If Essential Quality or Mandaloun win, Cox would be the first Louisville-born trainer to win the Kentucky Derby.
“My only concern with him is getting a good trip,” Cox said of Essential Quality. “If he runs the race he’s been running, he’s going to be there. In a 20-horse field, you have to overcome some things and have what you call racing luck. If he has racing luck and a clean trip, we should be in a great position.”
Jockey Luis Saez, who was aboard the disqualified Maximum Security in the controversial 2019 Derby, will be aboard Essential Quality.
A long shot to consider hitting the board is Midnight Bourbon (20-1). The son of two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winning Tiznow, has trained well at Churchill Downs and always gives a solid effort. The Lecomte winner is an imposing colt that hit the board in all three Louisiana prep races.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen is seeking his first Derby win, to go along with the Preakness and Belmont Stakes wins he has under his belt.
“He’s a very big horse, carries a lot of weight,” Asmussen said of Midnight Bourbon. “I’m extremely happy with how he has continued to physically develop up to this point.”
He will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who has Derby wins with Giacomo (2005) and Justify (2018).
“I feel really good about Mike being on him," Asmussen said. "I just want the big horse away from the gate cleanly to establish position. I think he’s got a very high rhythm that will be hard to keep pace with.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, with four horses in the field and who to this point has started a record 55 horses in the Run for the Roses, was asked if he saw a horse in the current Derby lineup that he might be afraid of.
“It looks like a fairly wide-open year,” he said. “I don’t see anybody I’m really afraid of. But on the other hand, I don’t see anybody I’d leave out.”
Other horses to consider using underneath in the exotics is one horse highlighted in last weekend’s long shots column in Mandaloun, who has been looking terrific, and Hot Rod Charlie (8-1). Both could finish in the trifecta or superfecta.
Post Time Kentucky Derby Outlook: 1 – Rock Your World; 2 – Essential Quality; 3 – Midnight Bourbon; 4 – Known Agenda.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.