Magic Man’s breakdown of the 2021 Kentucky Derby

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The day has come, one that is long awaited in the world of horse racing. The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby will be held under what will be picture perfect conditions. Thankfully after the deluge of rain that fell on Thursday, we get a perfect weather day.

I have said on many previous looks at the Kentucky Derby as to how special this day is, yet this year just feels more so as we emerge from the global pandemic. Let me say with un doubted conviction that this day represents another step towards normalcy as it pertains to people coming together to celebrate horse racing.

The Kentucky Derby is on my sports bucket list, and I would absolutely love to go one year just to partake in the ambiance that befalls Churchill Downs and to feel the raw emotion when the horses hit the track under that wonderful melody of “My Old Kentucky Home” by the Louisville Marching Band. Admittedly, I do choke up when that anthem is played. It’s just so meaningful as a devout fan of this sport.

As for this year’s renewal of the Derby, we did lose a runner on Friday as King Fury was withdrawn due to a fever spike. As a result, 19 horses will now head to post.

It is incumbent on me to win this race as a handicapper. Most of you who are familiar with my columns know it has been since 1994 that I have picked the winner of the Derby and 27 years is long enough, don’t you think? I can’t explain my troubles with this race but I have to find this winner as well as the correct exacta box for my dear friend Ed Daniels; do not forget to join us on the Three Tailgators Show with Ken Trahan and Mr. Daniels around 11:40 a.m. on NASH ICO 106.1 FM preceded by my appearance on Bayou State Sports Saturday with Johnny Marchese and Mike Garcia at 8 a.m.

A busy day beckons for me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way on the first Saturday in May. If I lose this exacta box though, I will volunteer myself onto a milk carton! Here’s my horse-by-horse preview with the picks.

RACE 12 Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (Grade I) POST TIME – 6:57 PM ET
PP (RACE 12)
Daily Double / Exacta / Trifecta / Superfecta / Pick 3 (Races 12-13-14) Super Hi-5
Churchill Downs STAKES

Purse $3,000,000. For Three-Year-Olds, With An Entry Fee Of $25,000 Each And A Starting Fee Of $25,000 Each. One And One Fourth Miles.

P# PP Horse  Virtual
A/S Med Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L
1 1 Known Agenda (KY) [ ] 3/C I Ortiz, Jr. 126 T A Pletcher 6/1
2 2 Like the King (KY) [ ] 3/C D Van Dyke 126 W A Ward 50/1
3 3 Brooklyn Strong (NY) [ ] 3/G U Rispoli 126 D Velazquez 50/1
4 4 Keepmeinmind (KY) [ ] 3/C D Cohen 126 R Diodoro 50/1
5 5 Sainthood (KY) [ ] 3/C C J Lanerie 126 T A Pletcher 50/1
6 6 O Besos (KY) [ ] 3/C M Pedroza 126 G D Foley 20/1
7 7 Mandaloun (KY) [ ] 3/C F Geroux 126 B H Cox 15/1
8 8 Medina Spirit (FL) [ ] 3/C J R Velazquez 126 B Baffert 15/1
9 9 Hot Rod Charlie (KY) [ ] 3/C F Prat 126 D F O’Neill 8/1
10 10 Midnight Bourbon (KY) [ ] 3/C M E Smith 126 S M Asmussen 20/1
11 11 Dynamic One (KY) [ ] 3/C J L Ortiz 126 T A Pletcher 20/1
12 12 Helium (KY) [ ] 3/C J R Leparoux 126 M E Casse 50/1
13 13 Hidden Stash (KY) [ ] 3/C R Bejarano 126 V H Oliver 50/1
14 14 Essential Quality (KY) [ ] 3/C L Saez 126 B H Cox 2/1
15 15 Rock Your World (KY) [ ] 3/C J Rosario 126 J W Sadler 5/1
16 16 King Fury (KY) [ ] 3/C B J Hernandez, Jr. 126 K G McPeek 20/1
17 17 Highly Motivated (KY) [ ] 3/C J Castellano 126 C C Brown 10/1
18 18 Super Stock (KY) [ ] 3/C R Santana, Jr. 126 S M Asmussen 30/1
19 19 Soup and Sandwich (FL) [ ] 3/C T Gaffalione 126 M E Casse 30/1
20 20 Bourbonic (KY) [ ] 3/C K Carmouche 126 T A Pletcher 30/1

Owners: 1 – St. Elias Stable (Vincent Viola) ; 2 – M Racing Group, LLC (Mickey Gonzalez) ; 3 – Mark Schwartz ; 4 – Spendthrift Farm, LLC (Eric P. Gustavson), Cypress Creek Equine (Kevin Moody) and Arnold Bennewith ; 5 – CHC, Inc. (Kit Ng) and WinStar Farm, LLC (Kenny Troutt) ; 6 – Bernard Racing, LLC (L. Barrett Bernard), Tagg Team Racing (Travis Foley), West Point Thoroughbreds, LLC (Terrence Finley) and Terry L. Stephens ; 7 – Juddmonte (Fahad bin Khalid) ; 8 – Zedan Racing Stables (Amr F. Zedan) ; 9 – Roadrunner Racing (Greg Helm), Boat Racing, LLC (Patrick O’Neill), William Strauss and Gainesway Thoroughbreds, Ltd. (Antony Beck) ; 10 – Winchell Thoroughbreds, LLC (Ron Winchell) ; 11 – Repole Stable (Mike Repole), Phipps Stable (Daisy Phipps Pulito) and St. Elias Stable (Vincent Viola) ; 12 – D. J. Stable, LLC (Leonard Green) ; 13 – BBN Racing, LLC (Ann Braxton Lynch) ; 14 – Godolphin, LLC (Mohammed Al Maktoum, et al.) ; 15 – Hronis Racing, LLC (Kosta Hronis) and David Michael Talla ; 16 – Fern Circle Stables (Paul Fireman), Three Chimneys Farm, LLC (Goncalo B. Torrealba) and Magdalena Racing (Sherri McPeek, et al.) ; 17 – Klaravich Stables, Inc. (Seth Klarman) ; 18 – Erv Woolsey and Keith I. Asmussen ; 19 – Live Oak Plantation (Mrs. Charlotte C. Weber) ; 20 – Calumet Farm (Brad Kelley)
Breeders: 1 – St. Elias Stables, LLC; 2 – Horseshoe Racing LLC; 3 – Cheryl Prudhomme & Dr. Michael Gallivan; 4 – Southern Equine Stables, LLC; 5 – Edward Taylor & Springland Farm; 6 – L. Barrett Bernard; 7 – Juddmonte Farms Inc; 8 – Gail Rice; 9 – Edward A. Cox Jr.; 10 – Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC; 11 – Phipps Stable; 12 – Teneri Farm Inc. &Bernardo Alvarez Calderon; 13 – Rhineshire Farm LLC; 14 – Godolphin; 15 – Ron McAnally & Deborah McAnally; 16 – Heider Family Stables, LLC; 17 – Klaravich Stables; 18 – Pedro Gonzalez & P. J. Gonzalez; 19 – Live Oak Stud; 20 – Calumet Farm
Pedigrees (Sire – Dam, by Dam Sire): 1 – Curlin – Byrama (GB) , by Byron (GB) ; 2 – Palace Malice – Like a Queen , by Corinthian ; 3 – Wicked Strong – Riviera Chic , by Medaglia d’Oro ; 4 – Laoban – Inclination , by Victory Gallop ; 5 – Mshawish – Lemon Hero , by Lemon Drop Kid ; 6 – Orb – Snuggs and Kisses , by Soto ; 7 – Into Mischief – Brooch , by Empire Maker ; 8 – Protonico – Mongolian Changa , by Brilliant Speed ; 9 – Oxbow – Indian Miss , by Indian Charlie ; 10 – Tiznow – Catch the Moon , by Malibu Moon ; 11 – Union Rags – Beat the Drums , by Smart Strike ; 12 – Ironicus – Thundering Emilia , by Thunder Gulch ; 13 – Constitution – Making Mark Money , by Smart Strike ; 14 – Tapit – Delightful Quality , by Elusive Quality ; 15 – Candy Ride (ARG) – Charm the Maker , by Empire Maker ; 16 – Curlin – Taris , by Flatter ; 17 – Into Mischief – Strong Incentive , by Warrior’s Reward ; 18 – Dialed In – Super Girlie , by Closing Argument ; 19 – Into Mischief – Souper Scoop , by Tapit ; 20 – Bernardini – Dancing Afleet , by Afleet Alex ;
Sire of Mandaloun standing at Spendthrift Farm
Sire of Dynamic One standing at Lanes End
Sire of Rock Your World standing at Lane’s End
Sire of Highly Motivated standing at Spendthrift Farm
Sire of Soup and Sandwich standing at Spendthrift Farm
Equipment Changes: 4 – Keepmeinmind – Blinkers off


Known Agenda
A visually powerful winner of the Florida Derby in his most recent start, he’s thrived ever since the blinkers went on him. He has been magnificent. Now the rail draw on this surface may hurt as seen by the reaction of his trainer Todd Pletcher on the day they drew post positions; you could clearly see his displeasure. Nevertheless, I fancy this one as a major contender as he can break alertly, sit a pocket trip and pick off the expected pacemakers. He is one I will definitely include.

Like the King
From the suburbs of Belterra Park to the Twin Spires, this guy is one of the ultimate underdog stories of this Derby. He was a beneficial winner of the Jeff Ruby Stakes on synthetic at Turfway Park in his last out. Let me be honest here. I don’t envision any scenario in which this guy contends. An easy one to throw out so let me proceed.

Brooklyn Strong
Well meant entering the 3 year old prep scene after he knocked off Known Agenda in last year’s Remsen, this guy got a late start and ran what appeared to be a short race in the Wood Memorial in his comeback. I am not a fan of horses making just one start then running in the Derby. Although this horse slightly intrigues, I don’t think his form suggests any radical improvement so he will not be on my ticket.

Here’s one who continues to bark and try swimming in waters that honestly are too deep. I admire the gumption of these connections to put this guy in here but in saying that he is yet another who won’t be on my ticket. Note to these connections: After he gets crushed, I suggest a layoff and a reset because he was one I had picked in the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds back in February before scratching out of there. I believe some class relief will suffice going forward.

He should have won the Jeff Ruby at Turfway in his last but suffered a brutal trip yet still made a belated run for second that day. He is making his 4th lifetime start here. Theoretically that means he should improve and his speed figures are light as compared to the main contenders. He will really have to take a gargantuan leap forward. If you are making deep superfectas, maybe include him but I will pass.

O’ Besos
He is one of the buzz horses this week as it relates to how he has handled his gallops and works in advance of the Derby. He came running late to snatch 3rd in the Louisiana Derby in his last and his figures suggest he has a punchers chance especially if the pace is hot up front. I am tempted to use him.

I really wanted to include this horse on my exotics but after very careful deliberation that Louisiana Derby was just too bad of a race. Trainer Brad Cox has said they could not find anything wrong with him post race and he has rebounded with energetic gallops and a couple of strong works. That suggests a bounce back, and he does get Cox’s number one rider in Florent Geroux so the signs are there to use him. I just have so many conflicting feelings about him. If I leave him out, he may ruin my exactas; if I use him he may flop again.

Medina Spirit
He ran into a buzzsaw in the Santa Anita Derby as Rock Your World handled him with ease that day. How often do you get a six-time Derby winning trainer in Bob Baffert at 15-1? I think the oddsmakers are telling you why not to use him. Rock Your World may get pace compromised here and maybe this horse can flip the script but he to me doesn’t show that ability to accelerate in quick fashion. He feels like a plodder who could crash the supers. I won’t use him.

Hot Rod Charlie
A visually impressive winner of the Louisiana Derby in his last out who has a different rider now. Before you get discouraged with Joel Rosario getting off and Flavien Prat replacing him, remember it was Prat who lucked into a Derby win two years ago with the controversial DQ of Maximum Security. This guy has faster numbers than the projected race favorite Essential Quality. Also consider this guy was close to EQ in last year’s BC Juvenile. He makes the 3rd start off the form cycle and even though a Louisiana Derby winner has not won this Derby since 1996 I give this guy an excellent chance to end that drought. Plus, I get a potential overlay here. Heck, sign me up.

Midnight Bourbon
I love the guts this guy has shown during the prep season in advance of the Kentucky Derby and he does get Mike Smith to ride. Mike has two Derby wins, and this feels like a mount taken discreetly without trying to draw attention. He was competitive in all the preps at the Fair Grounds and could be tempting as a longshot to use. I am at this moment still debating whether to use him as I type these so stay tuned.

Dynamic One
A tough luck 2nd in a strangely run version of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in his last out. You do get the highly talented Jose Ortiz but this guy’s speed figures are lacking. He is one I am willing to toss out of any gimmicks.

Unblemished through three starts and a surprise winner of the Tampa Bay Derby in his last, this one indeed has some helium to him. Mark Casse, his trainer, is a guy for whom I have big time respect and I will not question him. But I wish he would have had another prep race. He sure could have used it. I don’t like his chances due to the severe lack of seasoning.

Hidden Stash
It sure looked like he was gonna go by Helium two starts back but fell short. He was dusted by Essential Quality in the Blue Grass. There could be history made as trainer Victoria Oliver can become the first female to saddle a Derby winner. Maybe we get that breakthrough soon but it won’t be with this one. Pass on him.

Essential Quality
How can you fault this guy as he has not lost in five career starts? In saying that someone like me who likes beating the favorite has sought to find some weaknesses in his armor. First off, he did win the Blue Grass in his last out but how much did that take out of him? It was a prolonged duel with Highly Motivated. Another two factors to consider? A grey nor roan has not the Derby since 2005 where Giacomo pulled the upset. Also, the last time a horse who won the Blue Grass also took the Kentucky Derby was way back in 1991 when Strike the Gold did it. He does make the 3rd start off the form cycle so you would expect a top effort but his speed figures have not really progressed. I have to ask, is this the best we have seen and will he now regress? Plenty of questions to answer in my opinion.

Rock Your World
Maybe the most impressive 3 year old prep winner was this guy when he dominated the Santa Anita Derby. He gets Joel Rosario aboard here, yet he potentially could be pace compromised if others break running with him. If he clears from that post, look out. I think he may be just scratching the surface of how good he may be. I can use him without hesitation on my exotics.

King Fury
Scratched out due to spiking a fever on Friday morning.

Highly Motivated
He had everything his own way in the Blue Grass and there was nothing his rider Javier Castellano did wrong. In the end, he just got nailed by Essential Quality. The problem I have is that he built such a clear advantage and failed to close the deal that day so why should I think he does so here amongst a much deeper cast? Much respect to his connections and perhaps he runs well again but I just think he is biting off more than he can chew.

Super Stock
A trip out winner of the Arkansas Derby in his last out, he may have turned a corner in that race. The backstory behind this horse is that trainer Steve Asmussen is sending him to the Derby with his father who owns part of this horse. Wouldn’t it be just great if this story came to fruition with a win in the Derby? The post is going to be difficult and the other side of this begs the question, can he pair up numbers? I lean to thinking he will not do so and I will not use him.

Soup and Sandwich
A gallant 2nd in the Florida Derby, he drew horribly here. He will try and establish forward position and that will be tough with the other speed signed on. Also, he is lightly raced, and I don’t see him as a factor due to the lack of experience.

Where did that last win come from at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial? You could have had Todd Pletcher in New York at 72-1. Plus, Pletcher completed the exacta. There is an old saying in horse racing. If you did not go to the wedding, why bother going to the reception? Meaning if you were not involved at 72-1, why bet him now? I do like the fact that Louisiana native Kendrick Carmouche will finally have a Derby mount, and it has been since 2013 that an African American will ride in the Derby. A feel good story to be sure but in true analysis I do not see him anywhere on the board.

My Selections

1. Hot Rod Charlie–There were many many ways I could have gone but I have decided to cast my lot with this one as I cannot get away with how he won the Louisiana Derby. I get Flavien Prat, and in a race full of fun redemption and feel good stories, this one hopefully gets me my elusive long overdue Derby win.

2. Known Agenda–Blinkers on have done wonders for this guy, so despite the rail draw, I believe he has a monster chance of taking the Run for the Roses.

3. O Besos–He has been training lights out heading into this race. He was also the only one closing in the Louisiana Derby. He can get a favorable setup and I think he improves again.

4. Rock Your World–It would be my luck that this guy takes the win. I believe he has the wherewithal to do so but the pace scenario might be his undoing. If it isn’t then he gets home and my slump continues.

So there you have my look at the 2021 Kentucky Derby, back in its rightful place on the first Saturday in May. I will have recaps later this weekend and as always may your winners be plentiful and your wallets be fat.

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George Pepis

Horse Racing Analyst

George Pepis provides racing analysis during each Fair Grounds racing season. He also shares commentary and selections for major stakes events and prep races around the country. In the past, George has hosted sports talk programming on WGSO 990am in New Orleans. He has served as both play-by-play and color analyst on Louisiana high school football radio and internet broadcasts.

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