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10 horses to watch for the 2021 Kentucky Derby

After a 2020 Triple Crown season defined by scheduling oddities, empty grandstands and the absence of a transcendent 3-year-old champion, the racing world just wants a little normalcy from the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The country’s most targeted race will return to its familiar spot on the first Saturday in May with fans in the stands. So that’s a start. Now, it’s time to look at the contenders we’ll be talking about over the next three weeks as post time draws near for race.

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Jockey Luis Saez reacts aboard Essential Quality as they win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile horse race at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lexington, Ky
Jockey Luis Saez reacts aboard Essential Quality as they win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile horse race at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 6, 2020, in Lexington, Ky (Darron Cummings/AP)

Essential Quality

We know how difficult it can be for a 2-year-old champion to carry his form into Triple Crown season, but this Brad Cox trainee has yet to take a false step. He passed his greatest test in the April 3 Blue Grass Stakes when he caught front-running Highly Motivated to win by a neck in a terrific race. Cox is the hottest trainer in the sport. Jockey Luis Saez is one of the country’s most consistent winners. Essential Quality has already won at Churchill Downs, where he broke his maiden. It’s hard to find a reason why this undefeated gray colt should not be the favorite on May 1.

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

Concert Tour

Bob Baffert had to pull one potential favorite off the Derby trail when Life is Good suffered a horribly timed ankle chip last month. The Hall of Fame trainer always seems to have another bullet to fire, however, and this year it’s undefeated Concert Tour, who looked sensational winning the March 13 Rebel Stakes. Concert Tour will face one more test in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby before pointing toward Churchill Downs. Baffert has used the Oaklawn Park prep as a Derby springboard before, and he’s already compared Concert Tour to 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

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Rock Your World and jockey Umberto Rispoli win the Santa Anita Derby on April 3, 2021, at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
Rock Your World and jockey Umberto Rispoli win the Santa Anita Derby on April 3, 2021, at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. (AP)

Rock Your World

This mighty physical specimen went right to the lead in the Santa Anita Derby and had no trouble putting away Baffert-trained Medina Spirit. He took an unusual path to Derby contention, winning his first two races on turf before trainer John Sadler shifted him to dirt for his major prep. He’s another undefeated colt who seems to be peaking right on time.

Trainer Todd Pletcher looks on after morning workouts in preparation for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2019, in Louisville, Ky.
Trainer Todd Pletcher looks on after morning workouts in preparation for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Known Agenda

He took a major step forward in February and built on that by winning the March 27 Florida Derby with room to spare. We know trainer Todd Pletcher can get a contender to Churchill Downs in top form, and he seemed to unlock Known Agenda’s potential when he put blinkers on. Pletcher has expressed confidence that this chestnut colt will thrive at the 1 ¼-mile distance.

In this image provided by Benoit Photo, Medina Spirit, right and jockey Abel Cedillo, right, hold off Roman Centurian, ridden by Juan Hernandez, left, and Hot Rod Charlie, ridden by Joel Rosario, to win the Grade III, $100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes horse race, Saturday, Jan, 30, 2021, at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia Calif. (Benoit Photo via AP)
In this image provided by Benoit Photo, Medina Spirit, right and jockey Abel Cedillo, right, hold off Roman Centurian, ridden by Juan Hernandez, left, and Hot Rod Charlie, ridden by Joel Rosario, to win the Grade III, $100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes horse race, Saturday, Jan, 30, 2021, at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia Calif. (Benoit Photo via AP) (AP)

Hot Rod Charlie

Only two Louisiana Derby champions have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, but this Doug O’Neill-trained colt announced himself as a serious contender with his blistering run in the March 20 prep. He finished second to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, so it’s not as if his big showing came out of nowhere. O’Neill has won the Derby twice, and he’ll be in the mix again with this tough, versatile colt.

Highly Motivated

He answered some questions about his stamina with that excellent showing against Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes. His determination to hold the lead against a more seasoned champion stamped him as a real contender for trainer Chad Brown. Brown, who’s won four of the last five Eclipse Awards as North America’s outstanding trainer, is still looking for his Derby breakthrough.

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Medina Spirit, with Abel Cedillo aboard, wins the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Jan. 30, 2021, at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
Medina Spirit, with Abel Cedillo aboard, wins the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Jan. 30, 2021, at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. (AP)

Medina Spirit

He always gives a good effort (top two in all five career starts) but didn’t have the oomph to make a move on Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby. So we have to wonder if he has the talent to compete with the top Derby contenders. Baffert’s post-race comments seem to indicate he admires this colt’s spirit and professionalism more than his tools.

Midnight Bourbon

If you’re looking for a horse to hit the board but not win, this Steve Asmussen-trained colt merits your attention. He’s finished top three in all seven of his career starts (five of them graded stakes) and ran a game second to Hot Rod Charlie in the Louisiana Derby. He’ll likely contend for the early lead; his record says he won’t fade easily.

Dynamic One

He finished second in the April 3 Wood Memorial but looked better than his stablemate Bourbonic, who beat him by a head in a sluggish race. With a more efficient trip, he probably would have taken the New York prep. Though there’s nothing on his record that screams top Derby contender, Pletcher has said he’s gaining polish.

Soup and Sandwich

He stepped up to face better competition in the Florida Derby and finished a respectable second behind Known Agenda. Trainer Mark Casse finds a way into the Triple Crown mix almost every year, and he’s spoken highly of this colt’s progress over the last three months. Is Soup and Sandwich mature enough to hang with his more polished classmates? He showed enough at Gulfstream to earn his chance.

147TH KENTUCKY DERBY

May 1, 6:57 p.m.

TV: NBC

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

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