Kentucky Derby betting preview: Essential Quality will be tough to beat

After over a year of society being gripped by the coronavirus pandemic, there are now signs of a return to some semblance of normalcy.

Classrooms have begun to fill, the echo of cheers and jeers is in the air at stadiums again, and the Kentucky Derby has returned to the first weekend in May, reclaiming its mantle as the kick-off leg of the Triple Crown series.

The 20-horse field for the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville is packed with talented, dynamic runners — and some very juicy odds that can present some high-value betting opportunities.

Chief among the field of runners is morning line betting favorite No. 14 Essential Quality (2-1). Essential Quality comes into the Derby with five wins in five career starts. The Brad Cox-trained colt has demonstrated the ability to both win as a pure stalker or, as we saw last time out in the Blue Grass Stakes, be up on the lead, pushing the pace and still having enough in the tank to go the distance.

With that said, he’ll be up against quite a few other foes that possess a similar skill set in No. 15 Rock Your World (6-1), No. 9 Hot Rod Charlie (8-1), and No. 17 Highly Motivated (15-1), to name a few. Typically, these types of runners shape the race. If Essential Quality, for example, decides to make a run for the lead early, it will likely force all the other runners to change their plans and begin the chase. Everyone is aware of the speed he possesses, and he’s proven he can sustain it for at least 1 ⅛ miles. So it’ll be very interesting to see how the pacing possibilities shake out.

In preparation for the Derby, Essential Quality has turned in some strong workouts and appears to be primed to start his run toward Triple Crown immortality. While talent alone can give you a decisive edge, you need a lot to go right to go 5-for-5 in horse racing, and Essential Quality is looking to go 6-for-6 at the Derby. But the colt has the goods to make anybody a believer.

Kentucky Derby entrant Essential Quality waits to work out at Churchill Downs Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Essential Quality waits to work out at Churchill Downs on Thursday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Top contenders

No. 15 Rock Your World (5-1)

The second favorite in the Derby field is No.15 Rock Your World (5-1). Like Essential Quality, Rock Your World is also undefeated, going 3-for-3. His most recent outing at the Santa Anita Derby was by far his most impressive and dominant showing. He turned in the fastest Beyer figure — a speed rating that measures a horse’s performance — of his career, and it’s the highest among the field Saturday. It’s worth noting that it was also his first attempt on the dirt. Prior to the Santa Anita Derby, Rock Your World had been exclusively on turf, which makes his recent performance that much more eye-popping, because generally you’ll get two different performances from turf to dirt. Only a small percentage of horses tend to be just as effective on both surfaces. So when you see Rock Your World have his best outing by far in his dirt debut, everyone takes note. Going out at 1 ⅛ miles in his last outing was also his first time stretching out from a sprint, so that was an encouraging sign that the distance wouldn’t be a problem.

He’s turned in some bullet workouts in preparation for the Derby, and all signs point to Rock Your World being in optimal condition to attempt a repeat performance of his last outing.

I feel at 5-1 there are still a bit too many unknowns with Rock Your World to be convinced his Santa Anita Derby performance is sustainable. Comparatively speaking, he hasn’t faced nearly the level of competition as many of the other runners in the field. His most recent Beyer figure jump was such that it would be reasonable to see some regression, in which case, the slightest regression would be enough to bring him right back to the rest of the pack.

No. 1 Known Agenda (6-1)

Known Agenda is a pure stalker coming off the top performance of his career in the Florida Derby. Distance does not appear to be a concern for the Todd Pletcher-trained colt. Prior to the Florida Derby, Known Agenda had a few underwhelming performances against some mundane competition.

What makes Known Agenda an attractive betting prospect is the hope that he’s turned the corner for good. After a disappointing fifth in the Sam F. Davis Stakes to kick off the year, the tides began to change for Known Agenda. Starting with a win in an Allowance Optional Claiming at Gulfstream Park, followed by the win in the G1 Florida Derby, each race’s figures have been faster than the last. It appears a key factor to this successful stretch has been the addition of blinkers.

The hope is that the shift to blinkers will continue to yield positive results and that he’s had enough time off to be fully rested and avoid a performance bounce.

Underdogs to watch

Medina Spirit (15-1), Midnight Bourbon (20-1)

Two of the biggest threats in the field who have the speed to aggressively go after the early lead and potentially go gate-to-wire, happen to both have very long odds — which screams great value. Meet No. 8 Medina Spirit and No. 10 Midnight Bourbon.

It can never be overstated enough how valuable favorable positioning is in a race like the Kentucky Derby. In fact, six of the last seven winners were among the top three horses after the first half-mile of the track. With 20 horses entering the starting gate, a sizable portion of the entrants’ races will be over soon after the start. Some would argue their race could be over before it even gets started, considering no horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby from the 17th stall (No. 17 Highly Motivated). You see, a clear and favorable trip not only ensures safety, but also efficiency. Accordingly, if a horse gets bumped and forced to the outside the whole way around the track, the race becomes increasingly more arduous simply because of the added distance to the trip compared to a horse that has the inside track and rides the rail the whole way around.

In the case of Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon, both are in the best positions to avoid all of that. Particularly Medina Spirit, because none of the runners to his inside (left) has proven the ability to have the speed to keep up with him, or the tendency to go after the lead. So with his chief competition for the lead to his outside having to exert more effort in attempts of getting over to the coveted rail, jockey John Velazquez and Medina Spirit have the opportunity to not only claim the inside trip early, but also put some distance between himself and the rest of the field while it is in their rear view jostling for position.

No. 17 Highly Motivated (10-1)

Despite history not being on his side from the No. 17 stall, Highly Motivated may be worth taking a closer look at. Last time out Highly Motivated was a neck away from giving Essential Quality his first loss in the Blue Grass Stakes. Not normally a frontrunner, Highly Motivated led the whole trip with Essential Quality a close second and was just caught at the finish, but put forth an admirable effort. That versatility, coupled with comparable speed figures to the best in the field, and recent impressive workouts indicate Highly Motivated is ready for another late showdown with Essential Quality.

Kentucky Derby entrant Highly Motivated works out Churchill Downs Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 1. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Highly Motivated works out at Churchill Downs on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

How to bet the Derby

When tasked with simply selecting the winner of the Kentucky Derby, most rational handicappers will be hard-pressed to look any further than Essential Quality. However, when tasked with selecting a horse on which to place a win wager, there may be some more room for flexibility. Instead of investing heavily on Essential Quality to win, some may opt to spread money around to a few potential upset selections, rationalizing that one of those winners could potentially recoup a significantly larger return at a fraction of the risk. And no matter how dominant Essential Quality may be, the Kentucky Derby has humbled its fair share of prohibitive favorites. Look no further than 2020’s Belmont Stakes winner Tiz The Law, who lost to Authentic at Churchill Downs.

But say you're convinced there’s no way around Essential Quality winning, and you don’t even want to entertain betting an alternative to win. There are still many viable options to capitalize on an Essential Quality victory and still add additional juice to your odds, namely with exotic wagering. Because the Derby field is so large, there are subsequently inflated odds across the board. Under normal race circumstances, betting the top three favorites in the field in a boxed trifecta (selecting three horses to come in first, second and third, and betting every possible combination of those three) generally would not yield enough of a return to justify the risk. But when the top three favorites in this case are boasting odds of 2-1, 5-1, and 6-1, your potential payoff is a lot more significant. Now let’s say you think some serious long shots will be in the hunt down the stretch. Adding a 10-1, 15-1 and 20-1 to your trifecta ticket with Essential Quality (2-1) could pay off even bigger. You could stand to make a small fortune off just a $1 Trifecta Key with Essential Quality keyed on top as the winner over the three long shots, equating to a $6 wager.

Tailor-made for Essential Quality

The average winning Beyer figure for the Kentucky Derby is about 104, and the only horse in the field that has reached the triple digit threshold was No. 15 Rock Your World in an unexpected performance. At this juncture, there is no expectation that any horse in this field cannot be caught after getting an early lead. This bodes incredibly well for Essential Quality, who prefers to stalk right off of the pace at a high cruising speed. The bottom line: Essential Quality has the grit, talent and winning disposition, and is facing an ideal field to successfully launch his Triple Crown campaign.

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