Derby 2021 Handicapping Analysis

This column likely will confuse you even more than you already are, but I will try to break down the race in as many ways as I can and throw some possible wagers at you. But things change quickly and there are some bets on which I am noncommittal at this point, so I likely will be posting updates in the comments section through Saturday. My Rankings tell you who I believe are the best overall horses based on talent, pedigree, eye test, and rate of improvement. This column will focus more on wagering and finding value. Of course, in many instances they are one and the same. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Dilemma is Here, 2021 Handicapping Analysis

By Steve Haskin


Let’s get one wager out of the way that I have to seriously consider. With this Derby being so confusing in so many ways, how can I not box the four horses from the Week 1 Rankings who made it to the Derby – Essential Quality, Known Agenda, Medina Spirit, and Keepmeinmind. It could be a trifecta or exacta box, but an exacta will pay nothing if it’s Essential Quality and Known Agenda. These are four solid horses with a lot of back class and a strong foundation and two will be good prices, so why not? It would have been a five-horse box had Caddo River not dropped out at the last minute, but now I can save money with one less horse. More on this later.

OK, now that we got that out of the way, let’s try to unravel this puzzle. First off, how can you truly handicap this Derby when you have three horses who have made only one start this year and four horses who have made only three lifetime starts, including one horse who is going to be no worse than second choice. And you have four horses coming off 6- and 8-week layoffs. So do we really know who many of these horses are? You also have half the field trained by four trainers, three of them Hall of Famers and one potential future Hall of Famer. Add Hall of Famer Bob Baffert and future Hall of Famers Chad Brown and Doug O’Neill and you have 13 of the 20 horses trained by Hall of Fame trainers. So, good luck to Greg Foley, Robertino Diodoro, Danny Velazquez, and Vickie Oliver.

What we’re going to do is break down the race into categories. The first will be speed figures. You have seen many references to Thoro-Graph figures and some of you are still bit confused by them. So I will sort them out and list the horses I feel are on the best pattern, which is more important in many ways than how fast their numbers are. The pattern is what gives you a clue who is going to peak on Derby Day.

Another category will be works, gallops, and overall appearance. Most of these horses look great and are training great, but I will point out the ones I feel are standouts and thriving at Churchill Downs.

And finally we come to handicapping and betting, focusing on potential overlays and longshots that can possibly pull off an upset or be part of the exotics.



There are three standouts for me on Thoro-Graph. Yes, Essential Quality has the two fastest figures, but there is a question, as slight as it may be, whether he has reached his peak. His numbers last year were strong and he began this year improving to a “negative-1/2,” which is still the only negative number run this year. Remember, the lower the number the better. In the Blue Grass he ran the second fastest number, a “0,” which was a slight regression. So, can he maintain those fast numbers or was the ½-point regression a sign that he peaked early and has already reached his level? Either number is fast enough to win the Derby, so we will just have to see if he regresses slightly again, stays around those numbers, or if another horse or horses who are on an improving pattern and projected to run a career-high number can match Essential Quality’s numbers or surpass them in the Derby.

The horse I believe is on the best pattern and sitting on a peak performance is DYNAMIC ONE, who I called my “hidden gem” and “Derby sleeper” after he finished fourth in a maiden race back in January. Although four horses have run faster than him in their last race, his pattern is stronger because he ran an excellent “5” in his second career start and it is that number that provided him with a foundation to fall back on in case he made a big jump this year and you weren’t sure if he was going to regress off it. Well, he started the year off running an “8 ¾” in the aforementioned maiden race and then improved to a “5” breaking his maiden. Having already run that “5” as a 2-year-old it was pretty certain he was going to improve off it, and he did, running a “2” in the Wood Memorial thanks to a very wide trip, running 43 feet farther than the winner. With his rate of improvement, his maturing mentally, and turning in one of the strongest works we saw all week, I am projecting that he has another significant move forward in him that will put him in a position to either win at a big price or finish in the money and be part of the exacta or trifecta. On Brisnet he has run two triple-digit late pace figures, and despite his very wide trip in the Wood Memorial he still ran a solid 96 late pace figure.

The second best pattern belongs to his stablemate KNOWN AGENDA, another horse who caught my eye early, despite having won only a maiden race by head and being beaten nine lengths in the Remsen Stakes in the slop. I thought so highly of him I ranked him No. 8 in the first Derby Rankings in January. He looked to be going nowhere, running back-to-back “11” Thoro-Graph numbers and having mental lapses where he just wasn’t focused on running. Then a frustrated and desperate Todd Pletcher put blinkers on him and he romped by 11 lengths in a mile and an eighth allowance race, with his Thoro-Graph jumping from an “11” to a “3.” The question was, would he “bounce” or regress off such a big leap? Not only did he not regress he improved to a “1 ½” in the Florida Derby, which he won going away. With five weeks to the Derby and an extra furlong that he should relish, there is no reason why he shouldn’t make another move forward. He has the strongest foundation of all the starters, having already run in four mile and an eighth races.

Even looking at his Brisnet figures, he is one of only four horses to run a triple-digit number last out, along with Essential Quality, Rock Your World, and Highly Motivated. But his late pace figure of 112 in the Florida Derby is the fastest in the field, so he does have a very strong closing kick.

The third horse is HIGHLY MOTIVATED. The reason his Thoro-Graph pattern is so strong is that having started off his career running an “8 ¼” and then a “10 ¾” he jumped all the way to a “3” in the 6 1/2-furlong Nyquist Stakes on Breeders’ Cup day. Making his 3-year-old debut in the one-mile Gotham Stakes he was able to maintain that “3” with a troubled trip, which gave him a launching pad to move forward in the Blue Grass, which he did running a “1 ¼,” second-fastest in the field. Although he should improve a bit off that in this third start of the year and having gone two turns, his pedigree for a mile and a quarter is more questionable than those of Dynamic One and Known Agenda, who are bred to run all day. So he still has to prove he can stretch out in distance and maintain his fast figures, while with the two Pletcher horses there is no doubt they will appreciate the longer distance. However, he has the fastest Brisnet figures on a consistent basis, having run three consecutive 102 figures. And to show how high his cruising speed is, he ran three triple-digit middle pace figures in his first four starts, and then in the Blue Grass ran a 105 late pace figure, indicating a horse who can maintain his speed for a long period of time.

There are several horses who have made big jumps in their Thoro-Graph numbers, such as Rock Your World, O Besos, Soup and Sandwich, Bourbonic, Helium, and King Fury, but they were all in their last start, so we really don’t know in which direction they are going to go, because unlike Dynamic One they don’t have that fast number last year to fall back on. And then we have Hot Rod Charlie and Medina Spirit, whose numbers are OK, but they have not improved at all in their last three starts, remaining stagnant (3 ¾, 3 ¾, 3 ¾ for Hot Rod Charlie and 3 ½, 3 ¼, and 3 for Medina Spirit). Those numbers should not be good enough to win the Derby, so they will have to improve them several points. They both are talented enough to do it, but we’re going by pattern, so it’s pure speculation that they will make that jump after three even performances.

HOT ROD CHARLIE is the biggest enigma. I love so many things about him, including his versatility, his courage under fire, how well he closed in the Louisiana Derby on the lead, and the way he’s been training. And his last Beyer figure of 99 is the second fastest in the field. But it all depends how you interpret his Thoro-Graph numbers. Even on Brisnet, his late pace figures have been significantly slower than his early and middle pace figures. So is he a strong closer or not? Those numbers say no, but the eye test says yes. So I am going to hold off on him until I see how he’s being bet and if there is value.

There is no sense even looking at Beyer figures. All you need to know about this year’s field is that Rock Your World has the highest Beyer at 100. In the past 30 years, only once was the highest Beyer in the field as low as 100 and that was in 2010 when Super Saver beat a mediocre field at best. If you want an alarming statistic how Beyer figures or horses have gotten slower, in 13 years between 1994 and 2006 the average number of triple-digit Beyer figures in the Derby field each year was 24.4. In 13 years between 2009 and 2021, the average is 5.2. To give you another example of the contrast, this year we have one triple-digit Beyer. When Fusaichi Pegasus won in 2000 there were 33. Of the 19 starters, 16 of them had at least one triple-digit Beyer and two of the ones who didn’t were coming from Dubai. So do we really care if one horse has 100 Beyer and the others have in the mid-to-high 90s?



Well, we’re back to DYNAMIC ONE, who along with KING FURY, made the biggest impression in their final work, as described in this week’s Derby Rankings. Both works were highlighted by sensational gallop-outs, especially King Fury with the rider up in the saddle and not asking him in the slightest. He has such a smooth, fluid stride, and the way he hugs the rail on the turns you realize how athletic he is and have to consider him in your exotics despite having only one start this year. His work, without company, was one of the best I’ve seen in my 30 years covering the Derby. Dynamic One has been doing everything right since he arrived at Churchill Downs and definitely looks like a horse sitting on a peak effort.

There were a number of other terrific works; way too many to detail. ROCK YOUR WORLD turned in three powerful and identical works in California, with huge gallop-outs and has been an imposing figure on the track at Churchill Downs. And you can’t fault HOT ROD CHARLIE’S Santa Anita works as well, as he’s been his usual steady self, and his back-to-back six furlong works, in which he galloped out strongly, gave him a lot of bottom since the Louisiana Derby. He was particularly strong in his Wednesday gallop, which is typical Doug O’Neill. So he is dead-fit and has a mile and three-sixteenths race under him already.

Some of the other works at Churchill Downs that caught the eye were by O BESOS, who was extremely powerful past the wire going out a strong seven furlongs; MANDALOUN, who has been gliding over the track; and SOUP AND SANDWICH’S first work. He no doubt is maturing quickly. And no horse has made a better physical impression than MIDNIGHT BOURBON, who is flourishing at Churchill Downs and growing into a magnificent-looking horse. His coat is radiant, he’s muscled out and carrying great flesh. And in his five-furlong work in :59 4/5 it didn’t look as if he was going that fast, which is what you want to see. So if you combine physical presence and works he looks like he’s sitting on a big race.

This is not to say that others have not looked terrific working. I’m just trying to pick out a few that stood out. A quick mention must also be made that Pletcher’s longshots, SAINTHOOD and BOURBONIC have been very strong and fluid in their gallops and both are feeling good.

One final work I have to mention because no one else has was the bullet half-mile work in a sizzling :46 1/5 by (the plodder?) KEEPMEINMIND. Churchill finally showed the work several days later and you would never think he was going that fast. I mentioned in the last Derby Rankings why this horse could be a live exotics play at a monster price with the blinkers off.



OK, we’re finished with the window dressing. Now it is time to try to make some sense of this baffling Derby. With the exception of maybe three or four horses, it would not be a shock to see any one of these horses win, that’s how little we really know about most of them and what their ceiling is. There simply are too many questions and too few starts to get a good grasp of this field.

If you’re leaning toward one of the horses with good tactical speed or one of the deep closers, remember this: in 27 of the last 30 Derbys the winner was either first or second at the eighth pole. The only three that weren’t were Animal Kingdom (3rd), Grindstone (4th), and Giacomo (6th). With the last two, the pace was :46 flat and 1:10 flat for Grindstone and :45 1/5 and 1:09 2/5 for Giacomo. So assuming we’re not going to get a pace that fast you better have a horse who has a move explosive enough to pass 18 of the 20 horse by the time they get to the eighth pole. But then again, this 2021 and I must interject the lyrics of a song from the musical The King and I:

“There are times I almost think
I am not sure of what I absolutely know
Very often find confusion
In conclusion I concluded long ago
In my head are many facts
That, as a student, I have studied to procure
In my head are many facts
Of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!
Is a puzzlement”

So, now that I have eliminated the word expert from this year’s Derby vernacular, we can proceed.

Although I can make a case for so many of them, especially to fill out the exotics, I will just try to make it as simple as possible. With that said, let’s go right to my two early Pletcher pet projects, KNOWN AGENDA and DYNAMIC ONE, who seem like old friends by now having been very high on them since January. Pletcher has started 28 horses in the Derby who were coming off victories in major Derby preps, all graded stakes. He won one, with Always Dreaming, coming off a victory in the Florida Derby. Well, Known Agenda is not only coming off a victory in the Florida Derby, he has the same owner as Always Dreaming. And as for Dynamic One, he finished second by a head in his previous start. Pletcher’s other winner, Super Saver, finished second by a neck in his previous start. So both horses fit the profile of a Todd Pletcher Derby winner. Exacta box anyone?

Here is something to ponder as meaningless as it may be. In 1997, Gary Stevens was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he won the Kentucky Derby on Silver Charm. In 1999, D. Wayne Lukas was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he won the Kentucky Derby with Charismatic. In 2000, Neil Drysdale was elected to the Hall of Fame the same year he won the Kentucky Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus. Well, as we all know, Todd Pletcher will be elected to the Hall of Fame next week. Just passing that along.

As I said, I can make this complicated by spewing out a whole bunch of exotic bet combinations, but I am going to start off by looking for value win bets. Although ROCK YOUR WORLD is still my No. 1-ranked horse I feel his odds will be too low to bet him to win, unless you’ve got a big bundle of money to spend, so I will save him for the exotics. Remember, this is about wagering picks and finding value more than who is the most talented horse. I still believe Rock Your World is the most talented with the higher ceiling, even though I am still against horses in the Derby with only three lifetime starts. In short, Essential Quality, Known Agenda, and Hot Rod Charlie are your AT&T, the safer and more reliable stock with a longer and solid history behind it. Rock your World is the exciting new company that is just getting started whose stock can take off at any time. But there is also the risk factor due to its lack of experience.

My main win bet has been on KNOWN AGENDA for a while for reasons I have been explaining since January and I was hoping he would be a good value bet. Before the Florida Derby Churchill Downs refused to include him in any of its Derby Future Wager fields, so I was unable to get him at a big price. Now that big price is long gone. With Rock Your World at 5-1 on the morning line and Known Agenda at only 6-1 I’m not sure where the value is with my meager means. Drawing the rail is never what you want and maybe that will push his odds up a little, along with Jim McIngvale’s $2 million win bet on Essential Quality. Maybe enough people will remember his $3.4 million bet on the Tampa Bay Bucs in the Super Bowl and figure he doesn’t lose bets like this. If Known Agenda’s odds are that low on Derby Day I will have to key him and Rock Your World in the exactas with about a dozen horses and use them prominently in trifectas, but more on that later.

As for Known Agenda’s inside post, it’s never ideal in a 20-horse field, but he did win the Florida Derby racing on the rail most of the way and easing out approaching the head of the stretch, so he’s at least shown he doesn’t mind being down on the inside and can negotiate a good trip. And it is still the quickest way around there. This is not like drawing the rail in past years. With the new single gate he will have more room to his inside and the five horses directly outside him have little or no speed, so he should not encounter any traffic problems early on as long as he breaks well. If you like him you don’t want to back off now and have him get a dream trip, so stick with him and let it play out.

I do know that I am making a pretty significant (for me) win bet on my longshot special DYNAMIC ONE and a slightly lesser bet on O BESOS. Those are my two main win bets at a big price. As of right now I likely will also put a win bet on MIDNIGHT BOURBON based on his work and how good he looks physically, and just hoping he gets the perfect trip and has used these six weeks to move forward. I just keep seeing flashes of Tiznow from a physical sense and not knowing when he is going to have that breakout performance. He is going to be much higher odds than his Louisiana Derby conqueror Hot Rod Charlie, but he needs the perfect pace scenario. I’m still trying to make up my mind whether to make a win bet on KING FURY based on his sensational work and gallops. It all depends on the price. I’d love to get at least 25-1 but preferably 30-1 or higher. He’s only had that one start, which I don’t like, and may be a bet-down horse with the buzz growing, so I will have to see how he’s being bet and will just hope for a big price. Worst case scenario is to play him underneath in the exotics, which is more logical.

Just a quick note on pace scenario: with Caddo River out there is no true speed horse, and none of the trainers of horses who do have early speed are planning on their horse being on the lead even though Rock Your World does have the early lick and the ability to run his opponents off their feet. Sadler, however, says he is looking for him to sit just off the pace. That leaves none other than Bob Baffert, who loves to use his horses’ speed and put them right in the mix up. If everyone hesitates he is more than happy to take the initiative. Even though Medina Spirit drew post 8 he is the inside speed and has to go from the start with so much tactical speed outside him. Medina Spirit’s main strength seems to be his willingness to battle in the stretch and not let horses get by him, so if he is going to win his best chance would seem to be to go to the front and try to hold off everyone.

As I said in the intro, I will be making updates through Saturday in the comments section depending on late observations and revelations over the next few days.

Those updates will include final thoughts on exotic bets because it is too early to commit to those. But in the exactas, using the safe horses Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, and Hot Rod Charlie on top, the horses to back them up at a good payoff will be, in addition to Dynamic One, O Besos, and Midnight Bourbon, the real bombs Keepmeinmind, King Fury, Bourbonic, Brooklyn Strong, Sainthood, Soup and Sandwich, and Super Stock. I need to see the odds on Medina Spirit to decide if it’s worth it. These are just $2 exactas for $20 or $1 exactas for $10, so you have to look for a monster payoff.

Just getting back to that Week 1 trifecta or exacta box of Essential Quality, Known Agenda, Medina Spirit, and Keepmeinmind, it’s not just a gimmick play based on the initial Derby Rankings. I think this is a pretty interesting combination of favorites, a mid-priced horse, and a huge bomb, all of whom have won Grade 1 or 2 stakes, with the shortest and longest priced horses having finished first and third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. You also have one horse who will be on or close to the pace, two horses probably around midpack, and one coming from far back. So we’ll give it a wild shot for a $1 trifecta box for $24. The key will be how Known Agenda beaks from post 1 and if he can settle into a good position without running into traffic down on the rail. I normally hate equipment changes for the Derby, especially with blinkers, but Keepmeinmind is sharp and sneaky and blinkers off isn’t as bad as blinkers on.

So I hope you’ve been able to digest all this. Right now the keys are my win bets on Dynamic One, O Besos, and Midnight Bourbon and possibly a small bet on King Fury and how much I want to bet on Known Agenda. I won’t know that until Saturday when I see his odds. And there are the four exactas with the bombs underneath, and of course the Week 1 trifecta box just for the heck of it. I am also looking at a Pletcher Oaks/Derby double of Malathaat with Dynamic One and Known Agenda. The rest will have to be sorted out, as I am totally baffled when it comes to the trifectas and may lay low on them. It could deprive me of a lifetime score, but more likely would cost me a month’s paycheck.

Good luck to everyone. It’s been quite a ride.


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