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Five storylines to watch for the 2021 Kentucky Derby

Racing fans can be forgiven if their Triple Crown clocks feel a bit off. The last Kentucky Derby went off nearly eight months ago, the last Preakness Stakes nearly seven months ago, and already, we’re back trying to figure out the next class of 3-year-old contenders.

The jumbled Triple Crown series of 2020 produced incoherent results, with three different winners from three fields that bore little resemblance to one another. Swiss Skydiver’s stirring victory in the Preakness hardly connected to Tiz the Law’s romp in the Belmont Stakes 3 1/2 months earlier.

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We’ll see some return to normalcy in 2021, with the races back on their familiar weekends and crowds on hand to cheer and bet. Will that mean a renewed focus on the horses rather than the mutated events around them? That remains to be seen. What we do know is that the May 1 Derby will bring the usual collision of 20 costly, hope-filled odysseys, all sorted out over two frantic minutes.

Will we come out of it with a potential star heading to Baltimore for the Preakness? Here are five stories to watch as the race draws near:

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Can Essential Quality put an exclamation point on Brad Cox’s rise?

Cox, 41, announced his arrival as an elite trainer in 2018 based on his work with 3-year-old filly champion Monomoy Girl. He took another step forward with two Breeders’ Cup wins in 2019 and seized the Eclipse Award as North America’s top trainer in 2020. One of the key horses in that last campaign was Essential Quality, who capped an undefeated 2-year-old season by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November.

Though the Juvenile winner is often listed as an early favorite for the Derby, we know how treacherous the path from November to May can be. Only two horses, Street Sense and Nyquist, have won both races. Many 2-year-old champions never make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

Jockey Luis Saez reacts aboard Essential Quality as they win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lexington, Kentucky.
Jockey Luis Saez reacts aboard Essential Quality as they win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lexington, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Essential Quality has defied this history so far with victories in both his 3-year-old starts, including an impressive rally over front-running Highly Motivated in the April 3 Blue Grass Stakes. Other would-be Derby favorites have fallen away because of injuries or disappointing prep outings. He’s still standing.

Can Cox, a Louisville native who’s yet to win a Triple Crown race, reach another training summit in his hometown? “It’s the biggest race in the world to me,” he said.

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Is Rock Your World actually the most talented horse?

No other horse in the field can match Essential Quality’s accomplishments, but several have hit higher peaks as measured by Beyer speed figures. The leader by this method is undefeated Santa Anita Derby champion Rock Your World, who posted a Beyer figure of 100 in his prep breakout (Essential Quality’s best was 97).

Rock Your World presents a fascinating case on several fronts, given that he’s raced just three times and the first two of those were on turf. Trainer John Sadler said he always intended to “lay in the weeds” with his Derby contender, and his strategy seemed to pay off at Santa Anita, where Rock Your World went to the lead quickly and put away his pursuers with ease.

This colt certainly looks the part, with a powerful physique and an engine that hardly seemed taxed by his effort at Santa Anita. He’ll be ridden by 2013 Derby winner Joel Rosario, so that checks another box. Whether or not you’re a devotee of speed figures, Rock Your World is a serious threat to Essential Quality and perhaps the contender with the highest ceiling.

Can Hot Rod Charlie defy the history of Louisiana Derby winners?

Plenty of outstanding 3-year-olds have emerged from the Louisiana Derby, the earliest of the major Triple Crown preps. Only two of them, Black Gold in 1924 and Grindstone in 1996, have won the Kentucky Derby. Hot Rod Charlie looks like a colt who could turn that narrative on its head.

His top Beyer figure of 99 puts him right behind Rock Your World. His trainer, Doug O’Neill, has won the Derby twice in the past decade. His performance in Louisiana, where he beat fellow Derby contender Midnight Bourbon by two lengths coming off a stretch of outstanding training, was commanding.

Hot Road Charlie has run well in three different states — including the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, where he pushed Essential Quality — and under a wide variety of race conditions. In a field without a runaway top choice, his versatility and competitiveness demand attention.

Trainer Bob Baffert celebrates after Authentic won the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Sept. 5, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Trainer Bob Baffert celebrates after Authentic won the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Sept. 5, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Where’s Bob Baffert in all this?

Six weeks ago, Baffert’s quest for a seventh Derby victory seemed on track, with Life Is Good regarded as a likely favorite and Concert Tour emerging as another serious contender. As the Hall of Fame trainer often says, however, a few months can be eternity on the Triple Crown trail.

First, Life Is Good suffered an ankle chip that knocked him out of Derby contention. Three weeks later, Concert Tour came up inexplicably flat in the Arkansas Derby, where he went off as a heavy favorite. Baffert was troubled enough by the performance that Concert Tour will skip the Derby and point to the Preakness.

So where does that leave Baffert, who won Triple Crowns in 2015 and 2018 and took the Derby last year with Authentic? He’ll be in the race with Medina Spirit, who finished second to Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby, but the colt is more battler than elite talent. For once, the biggest star in American racing will be a secondary story at Churchill Downs, where he loves to hold court outside his familiar Barn 33. Of course, we thought that last year as well, when the Derby was supposed to be a coronation for Tiz the Law and instead went to Baffert’s horse.

Which other contenders do we have to take seriously?

Todd Pletcher’s Derby entries emerged later than usual this year, but Florida Derby champion Known Agenda has looked like the real deal since the Hall of Fame trainer put blinkers on him two races ago. Pletcher has won so much for so long that he doesn’t get enough credit for the adjustments he makes to get his horses to Churchill Downs in good form. He’ll also saddle Dynamic One, who was the best horse in the April 3 Wood Memorial despite finishing second by a head to yet another Pletcher trainee, Bourbonic.

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen will seek his elusive Derby victory with Super Stock and Midnight Bourbon. Super Stock sat largely off the radar until he blew by Concert Tour and Caddo River in the Arkansas Derby. That race set up perfectly for him, but he’s at least an intriguing wild card. Midnight Bourbon has never finished worse than third in seven career starts and looked good in his most recent workout at Churchill Downs. He’s a solid pick to hit the board.

Chad Brown is another superstar trainer looking for his first Derby win. Highly Motivated stepped forward as Brown’s latest contender when he nearly held off Essential Quality in the Blue Grass. The speed figures say he’s fast enough to hang with this field.

Mandaloun, trained by Cox, looked like a serious contender after he earned a 98 Beyer figure in winning the Feb. 13 Risen Star Stakes. Then, he dropped to sixth in the Louisiana Derby. Do we treat that race as a throwaway? If it was, he could be dangerous.

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Late-charging O Besos scraped into the field of 20 after a few defections but could be an appealing long shot based on the step forward he took in the Louisiana Derby.

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147TH KENTUCKY DERBY

May 1, 6:57 p.m.

TV: NBC

Triple Crown series: Preakness, May 15; Belmont, June 5

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