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How to Pick the Kentucky Derby Winner

Horse Racing Radar
Rich Bieglmeier
Rich Bieglmeier is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Saturday, May 1, 2021

It's a 20-horse field and quite frankly, horseplayers can make a compelling case for a dozen to wear the roses when the two most exciting minutes in sports is over. We looked at a bunch of different angles and data points to see what the Derby Champs shared since moving to the new qualifying system in 2013.

Here is what we found.

The first thing comes to attention is that every winner from ORB to AUTHENTIC amassed at least 100 points along the road to the Kentucky Derby. That narrow the 12 potential contenders to a lucky seven:

ESSENTIAL QUALITY – 140 points
HOT ROD CHARLIE – 110 points
SUPER STOCK – 109 points
LIKE THE KING – 104 points
KNOWN AGENDA – 102 points
ROCK YOUR WORLD – 100 points
BOURBONIC – 100 points

It's not surprising that most of the pre-race favorites are in seven. After all, they won all the big races along the way to Louisville.  

The luck of the draw can damage a contender's chances long before the race begins. Every Derby champion since 2000 wore a 4 or higher, that makes it hard work for #1 KNOWN AGENDA and #3 LIKE THE KING. The last rail horse to wear the Churchill Crown on the fist Saturday of May was FERDINAND in 1986 and REAL QUIET brought the 3 to the winners' circle in 1998. It can be done but both will have to overcome the inside obstacle.

Running style is another quality the last seven to hold the hardware have in common, all were in the first three at the quarter, half and three-quarter mile markers. Six of the seven took the lead for good after 1 mile.

Here are the ones with some ones in their past performances.

LIKE A KING flashed 1s, 2s and 3s on his lines early in his career.

HOT ROD CHARLIE wired the field in his last race, winning the Grade II, Louisiana Derby.

ESSENTIAL QUALITY collected two of his five Ws as the co-pilot through the first half of the races before taking over for good.

ROCK YOUR WORLD wired the field in his first dirt race, scoring in the Santa Anita Derby.

Key races before the Kentucky Derby are a leading indicator too. The Santa Anita or Florida Derby have produced seven of the eight KD's winners since the new qualifying rules went into effect. AUTHENTIC was the only to win without winning one of the two key races, he finished second in Southern California last year. We also include MAXIMUM SECURITY in our count as he was first to Churchill's finish line but was disqualified.

Unfortunately, for ESSENTIAL QUALITY, every horse that won the Blue Grass Stakes and ran in the Kentucky Derby saw its Equibase speed figure drop in Louisville after running in Lexington.

If you put it all together, the typical Kentucky Derby Winner since 2013 has 100 or more qualifying points, is an early speed type, has an outside draw and raced in either the Santa Anita or Florida Derby. The horse that checks all those boxes is ROCK YOUR WORLD.

Interestingly, his winning time in the Santa Anita Derby was on par with last year's Kentucky Derby winner and a little faster than the number Triple Crown winner JUSTIFY put in the Santa Anita history books.


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