The final pieces of the puzzle that is the 2021 Kentucky Derby will be stamped and cut Saturday, as horses still trying to book a trip to Louisville get their final opportunities to do so in either in the $1 million Arkansas Derby or the $200,000 Lexington Stakes.
A word of warning, though: As with all puzzles, some assembly will be required.
When the dust settles in the last two prep races for the Run for the Roses, which is scheduled for May 1, we should at least be able to predict with some certainty who the Derby favorite will be: last year’s juvenile champion Essential Quality, unbeaten in five career starts, or Concert Tour, who could snatch the mantle if he can run his unblemished record to four for four in the Arkansas Derby for trainer Bob Baffert.
We’ll unpack that and other pieces of the big race over the next three weeks. But in the meantime, let’s see which horses might be able to use this weekend’s races to earn a spot in the starting gate at Churchill.
The Arkansas Derby, a Grade 1 race at 1⅛th mile at Oaklawn Park, drew six horses for what is essentially a pared-down rerun of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 13. Four of the top five finishers in that race, along with also-ran Get Her Number, are back for a second go. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that you will not be able to bet the race in Nevada due to the ongoing simulcast dispute between the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association and Churchill Downs Inc.)
The race, which will be aired by NBC Sports Network beginning at 4 p.m. PT, will award 170 Kentucky Derby points, meaning a top-two finish should be enough to secure a spot in the Louisville lineup, even if you’re starting from zero.
In the Rebel, 6-5 favorite Caddo River was outrun by Concert Tour into the first turn, prompting jockey Florent Geroux to take the former back and switch him to a stalking position outside. That didn’t work out so well for the Brad Cox-trained son of Hard Spun, as he faded to fifth after briefly challenging Concert Tour on the far turn.
Cox vowed this week that there will be no taking back this time, which could set up a draining speed duel with Concert Tour, who is again drawn to the outside.
I don’t see that happening, since Concert Tour already is assured a starting spot in Kentucky with 50 points. Instead, I think Baffert will tell jockey Joel Rosario to press Caddo River early, then try to pass him in the stretch. That should give Rosario the opportunity to avoid a sustained battle this close to the first Saturday in May.
Concert Tour is listed at even money on the morning line and will almost certainly be odds-on when they go to post. Since I can’t back him at that price and can’t come up with a playable alternative, I’ll likely be a spectator.
The Lexington Stakes, a 1/1-16th mile Grade 3 race at Keeneland, will offer Nevada bettors a decent betting opportunity, though it likely won’t have much of an impact on the Derby picture with only 34 Derby points at stake.
Unbridled Honor (10-1) is my pick, with Hockey Dad (8-1) and Proxy (6-5) posing the biggest threats. The latter pair are the only horses who could sneak into the Derby field with a win.
I’m also going to keep an eye on Bezos (8-1), another Baffert-trained colt who generated a lot of buzz early this year before he even made his first start.
Ellis Starr’s Arkansas Derby analysis
Leading the field by what could be a figurative, as well as literal, country mile is Concert Tour, who may have a tactical advantage in the Arkansas Derby in that he can win on the front end or from off the pace. Concert Tour won the San Vicente Stakes at the distance of 7 furlongs in February in only the second start of his career, showing a lot of maturity when relaxing in third in the early stages before going by the top two pacesetters for the win. That effort earned a career-best, and field high, 106 Equibase Speed Figure. Then in the Rebel Stakes jockey Joel Rosario took the racetrack away from favorite Caddo River because, in spite of drawing the seven post in the gate, Concert Tour had the lead a few strides after the start and never looked back. The 105 figure earned could have been higher but there was no reason to ask him to run all out in the stretch after opening up by four lengths with no threats behind. Returning to Bob Baffert’s Southern California base after the Rebel, Concert Tour has continued to work strongly and could easily handle this field to bring his record to a perfect four-for-four, similar to current early Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality, who won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes one week ago to bring his record to five-for-five.
Hozier passed five horses in the last half-mile of the Rebel Stakes when rallying from seventh to second and although no match for his stablemate it was a creditable effort. He earned an 89 figure one race prior that in his two-turn debut second start of his career and he improved considerably to a 99 figure in the Rebel. Hozier is certainly on a pattern to run even better while gaining the 40 Road to the Derby points for finishing second and enabling him to start in the big dance three weeks from now.
Caddo River may have to choose different tactics than were planned for the Rebel to be successful in the Arkansas Derby in order to win but that may not be out of the question. After winning both route starts wire to wire by an average of almost 10 lengths in November and January, the latter in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn with a 101 figure, Caddo River was just not fast enough to beat Concert Tour to the lead in the Rebel and took up a stalking position he had not previously used in a route race from the start. When asked to move up, Caddo River did not have anything to offer and ended up tiring to fifth of eight at the end, regressing to a 95 figure effort. Drawing inside Concert Tour in the gate once more in the Arkansas Derby, either Caddo River will be more intent on getting the lead from Concert Tour and get as brave as that one did in the Rebel¸ or perhaps this time he may show a finishing kick as he did last fall in the second start of his career, in a sprint, when rallying from third and one length back to make the lead before settling for second. In any event, it may be that even if this colt does run his best race it may not be good enough to beat either of the Baffert trainees.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures: Get Her Number (92), Last Samurai (84) and Super Stock (95).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase.