Known as the most exciting two minutes in sports, the 147th Kentucky Derby is set to run tomorrow at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. But it seems different this year. There is not as much mainstream interest as in previous years. Other than diehard racing fans, few can name two thoroughbreds entered — or even one, for that matter.
Why? Could be the pandemic changed people’s priorities and focus. Maybe people are just tired of trainer Bob Baffert seemingly winning every year. Possibly it was the altering of last year’s Triple Crown races regarding their order (the Derby was last), length (Belmont was only 1 1/8 miles) and spacing between races (months). Or, maybe because changing the rules to who qualifies from an earnings system to points years ago has resulted in the favorite winning just about every time.
Since logic suggests the favorite is likely to win again — that would be Essential Quality — why should I even bother to handicap the race? This horse is last year’s 2-year-old champion and has yet to lose a race. The answer is: Anyone can pick the favorite. For this race in particular, I find my purpose as a handicapper is to find the horse to beat Essential Quality and explain why.
Sainthood, Soup and Sandwich and the highly regarded and undefeated Rock Your World never raced last year as 2-year-olds. Throw them out since they don’t have not enough foundation (stamina) for the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance.
Hot Rod Charlie has the eye of many handicappers. He has, overall, good numbers. The downside is he won the Louisiana Derby; as a prep, that race doesn’t really produce many Kentucky Derby winners (the last was in 1996). On the other hand, the Arkansas Derby does bring forth quality entrants (witness American Pharaoh in 2015). This year’s Arkansas winner was Super Stock at odds of 12-1. It was only his second career win, the last being in August. Truth is, this year’s race at Oaklawn was lacking in depth and quality.
Bourbonic won the Wood Memorial at odds of 72-1. He came from way back with a slow pace up front. That is unusual. Even so, the time was pitifully slow, and with a field of 20 Derby horses, he could experience too many traffic problems. He is starting from the outside No. 20 post position.
Trainer Baffert had what looked like a wonderful horse in Life is Good, but a minor injury forced it off the Triple Crown trail. His prospect, Medina Spirit, pales in comparison to previous years.
Highly Motivated, which is trained by Brad Cox, lost by a neck to favorite Essential Quality in the Bluegrass Stakes. This horse should provide value as a live long shot, but it has been a while since the Bluegrass produced a Derby winner (1991).
That leaves for me Known Agenda. His sire is Curlin, who not only was a late bloomer, but his offspring often are too. Seems like Known Agenda is bucking that trend with his win in this year’s Florida Derby, which has been a successful steppingstone for previous winners (seven in last 20 years). He is ridden by one of the top jockeys, Irad Ortiz Jr., and is trained by Todd Pletcher, who will be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame this summer. His speed figures are decent and, most importantly for me, four of his last five races were at a 1 1/8-mile distance, providing a foundation unlike any other in the field
While he will start from the dreaded No. 1 post position, the upside is that will increase his betting odds.
Of course, he isn’t the favorite, so recent history shows he won’t win — but maybe, just maybe, it is time for a change. With $3 million on the line and some fans allowed this year, I expect the Run for the Roses to, for me, live up to expectations.