Kentucky Derby (Churchill Downs) Predictions, Picks & Betting Odds 2021

If you're playing only to win, go with my top pick Hot Rod Charlie (8/1)

Kentucky Derby – Post Position and Odds

Check out our predictions and odds for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs!

PP Horse Odds Jockey Trainer
I Ortiz Jr T Pletcher
D Van Dyke W Ward
U Rispoli D Velazquez
D Cohen R Diadoro
C Lanerie T Pletcher
6 O BESOS 20/1
M Pedroza G Foley
F Geroux B Cox
J Velazquez B Baffert
F Prat D O’Neill
M Smith S Asmussen
J Ortiz T Pletcher
12 HELIUM 50/1
J Leparoux M Casse
R Bejarano V Oliver
L Saez B Cox
J Rosario J Sadler
16 KING FURY 20/1
B J Hernandez Jr K McPeek
J Castellano C Brown
R Santana Jr S Asmussen
T Gaffalione M Casse
K Carmouche T Pletcher

Best Bets for the Kentucky Derby

Here are my plays ($168 in total)

$1 Trifecta key – Hot Rod Charlie over Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, O Besos, Dynamic One, King Fury, Midnight Bourbon, Brooklyn Strong over Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, O Besos, Dynamic One, King Fury, Midnight Bourbon, Brooklyn Strong = $56

$1 Trifecta key – Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, O Besos, Dynamic One, King Fury, Midnight Bourbon, Brooklyn Strong over Hot Rod Charlie over Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, O Besos, Dynamic One, King Fury, Midnight Bourbon, Brooklyn Strong = $56

$1 Trifecta key – Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, O Besos, Dynamic One, King Fury, Midnight Bourbon, Brooklyn Strong over Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Known Agenda, O Besos, Dynamic One, King Fury, Midnight Bourbon, Brooklyn Strong over Hot Rod Charlie = $56

Top Pick:

Hot Rod Charlie (8/1)

Check out our Kentucky Derby Betting guide!

The reigning juvenile champion, Essential Quality has been made a clear morning-line favorite, as he headlines a field of 20 3-year-olds set for Saturday’s 147th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Unbeaten in five career starts, Essential Quality began his career on Derby Day 2020 with an easy win against maidens at the Louisville oval. Trained by Brad Cox, who has never before saddled a Kentucky Derby starter, the son of Tapit has followed that up with four consecutive graded stakes wins, including last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and most recently, a hard-fought victory in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes. The Godolphin homebred will break from post position 14 and once again be ridden by Luis Saez.

The second choice on the morning line is the undefeated California colt, Rock Your World. Trained by John Sadler, the son of Candy Ride has won all three of his lifetimes starts this year, with the first two coming on grass. Most recently, he was an impressive winner of the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in front-running fashion. The Kentucky Derby-winning rider of 2013, Joel Rosario will be in the saddle and the pair will break from post 15.

Florida Derby winner Known Agenda is the third choice at 6-1 on the morning line. As one of four trained by two-time Kentucky Derby-winning conditioner Todd Pletcher, the son of Curlin comes in off two straight impressive wins at Gulfstream Park, including his Grade 1 breakthrough on March 27. Irad Ortiz Jr. will ride and they will break from the inside rail.

The Grade 1 Kentucky Derby will be run as the 12th race on the card Saturday at Churchill Downs. Live coverage of the spring classic, and the first leg of the Triple Crown, will be telecast on NBC.

How to Watch the Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby Race Information
What Kentucky Derby (Grade 1)
Where Churchill Downs
When Saturday, May 1 — 6:57 pm Eastern time
How to Watch NBC
Purse $3,000,000

Race Analysis

Essential Quality

His record really does speak for itself. Five wins in five races, the last four coming in graded stakes. He’s won over the track and his speed figures are right near the top. The champ obviously has a strong juvenile foundation, and two solid preps this year. He’s also versatile enough in running style to win from different early positions depending on how the race unfolds. He is clearly a deserving favorite. There are, however, enough questions to want to take a shot against the Brad Cox-trained son of Tapit as the clear favorite. Did his tough test in the Blue Grass last time take something out of him? Is his paddling style of running conducive to the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby? Is his narrow margin of victory last time a sign that he’s ripe for the upset? He is the horse to beat, but I believe he’s far from unbeatable.

Rock Your World

Despite being the second choice on the morning line, this one is still a bit of an unknown to me. It certainly looks like in his three wins, especially last time in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, that he has the potential to be as good as anyone in the division. Still, he didn’t race at two, has only one race on dirt, and was largely unchallenged last time. Having said that, he does have the ultimate equalizer going for him, and that is his speed. The Derby has been won in recent years by horses who have plenty of early speed, and this one fits that bill. I do worry about what will happen if he gets dirt kicked in his face for the first time, but his talent and speed certainly make him one to fear.

Known Agenda

This one is a legitimate threat off two convincing scores in South Florida since the addition of blinkers. One of four from the barn of Todd Pletcher, he is clearly moving in the right direction as he comes to Churchill Downs. An unlucky draw of postposition 1 does not encourage his supporters, but with the new starting gate, it is not as damaging a position as it was before. If his excellent rider, Irad Ortiz, Jr. can work out a good trip from the inside, he should have every opportunity to make his presence felt when the field turns for home on Saturday. This will be his first test against the best of this crop, but he may be up to the challenge.

Hot Rod Charlie

He ran a monster race to be second at big odds in last fall’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but his days as a longshot appear to be over. Trained by two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill, he has validated that big performance of last year with two strong efforts in 2021. He was very game when sandwiched in-between horses when beaten just a neck in the Robert B. Lewis in his seasonal debut, before a strong, front-running victory in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby last time while going 1 3/16-miles. With good tactical speed and the ability to pass horses, I fully expect the son of Oxbow to be in the race from the outset under Flavien Prat, one of the hottest riders on the planet. Drawn a nice spot in the middle of the starting gate, and at 8/1 on the morning line, he will be my top pick in this year’s Kentucky Derby

Highly Motivated

A stakes winner last fall at Keeneland, this Chad Brown-trained son of Into Mischief has turned in two solid races this year. A bobble at the start may have cost him the victory in the Grade 3 Gotham, when third, and then only a determined late move by Essential Quality got him beat in the Blue Grass. He could move forward off that effort, but I wonder if we can expect better from a horse who had things his own way last time and still could not win. He’s a major talent, but I question his ability to beat all of these at the 10-furlong distance.


This son of Into Mischief went into the Louisiana Derby as the well-liked favorite but came out of it a well-beaten and disappointing sixth. Before that, he had exchanged decisions with Midnight Bourbon in two solid performances in the Lecomte and the Risen Star. If you can draw a line through his poor effort last time, he merits consideration, but it was too bad to be completely forgiven. Trained by Brad Cox, it’s possible he turns things around, but I will take my chances that even an improved effort on Saturday still leaves him on the outside looking in.

Medina Spirit

This will be the only starter this year for the six-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. The son of Protonico has never finished worse than second in five-lifetime starts, including a runner-up to Rock Your World last time in the Santa Anita Derby. While it seems he lacks the talent of the two horses who beat him in his last two starts, he is a grinder who likes to stick around down the stretch. He is a threat to do that again on Saturday, but you cannot bet them all, and I like too many others better.

Dynamic One

This son of Union Rags seems to really be coming to hand for two-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher. Getting better with each start, it looked like he made a winning move in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial, before getting nailed on the wire by his barn mate Bourbonic. I like him better than that one moving forward. He’s bred to get the distance and has consistently made a nice middle move that can be effective in the Kentucky Derby. With Jose Ortiz in the saddle, he is a live longshot.

Midnight Bourbon

One of two from the barn of Steve Asmussen, this good-looking son of Tiznow has been a consistent performer in graded stakes racing since last summer. He’s only won once in five tries at the level, but he’s finished in the money each time. A nice jockey change to Mike Smith and a lack of much real speed in here have me believing that he is a candidate to stick around for a long time once again. The Lecomte winner was game in the Louisiana Derby and he’s bred to get the distance.

O Besos

Getting better with each start, this son of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb announced himself with a strong rally in a solid edition of the Louisiana Derby last time. It only carried him to third, but he just missed second behind Midnight Bourbon. That was his second try around two turns and he was the only one to rally in the race. Stabled at Churchill Downs, I expect him to come running late once again on Saturday. If the longshot has a traffic-free trip in the Derby, he has a shot to make some real noise with his closing kick.

King Fury

Trained by Kenny McPeek, this handsome son of Curlin had a solid foundation as a juvenile, so when he returned with a big performance in his 3-year-old debut to win Keeneland’s Grade 3 Lexington last time, I took notice. Not quite at the top of the heap last year, it seems the well-bred colt has done some maturing in the 4 ½ months he was off. He’s light on recent racing, but the strong return coupled with looking very good in the mornings, has me believing he is a live longshot on Saturday.

Super Stock

The Grade 1 Arkansas Derby winner earned his first graded stakes win last time in large part to the pace duel which softened up both Caddo River and Concert Tour. This time, he will need to do more of the work on his own, with far more horses to navigate through. His form before the Arkansas Derby was not good enough to consider him a major player in here, so I believe that victory was his day, when everything fell his way. I will pass on him on Saturday.


This one pulled off a shocking upset when he came from last to get up in the Wood Memorial with a furious late rally. The win, at 72/1, was one very few saw coming. Can he pull off another big surprise on Saturday? My feeling is that he will not, as I think things fell apart late in the Wood Memorial and he became the beneficiary over a track he clearly loves. On Saturday, he will be one of many looking to rally against a much tougher overall field. The 20 post is not ideal for him either.

Soup and Sandwich

The first of two lightly raced colts from the barn of Mark Casse, this son of Into Mischief has been impressive in three-lifetime starts, all coming this year. Drawn near the far outside at post position 19, he will need to utilize his strong tactical speed to find a good spot heading into the first turn. The Florida Derby runner-up looks like a horse with a bright future, but I ultimately believe that his lack of seasoning will be his undoing in this Kentucky Derby.


One of only three undefeated horses in the field, this Mark Casse-trainee came out running this season with a win in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, in what was both his dirt debut, as well as his first try in graded stakes racing. I wish he had another start since, but his Hall of Fame conditioner elected to have him relatively fresh for the Derby. The son of Ironicus has some talent, but I feel like this is just too big an ask for his second start of the year.


A fourth of four from the barn of Todd Pletcher, this one finished an unlucky second last time in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Tapeta at Turfway Park. It was a good step up in class for the son of Mshawish, in his stakes debut, after a pair of competitive performances in dirt maiden races. Now he will need to make another large step up in class in the Derby. The trouble in the Ruby was significant enough to consider him here, but still, I like too many others better.

Hidden Stash

An allowance winner at Churchill Downs as a juvenile, this son of Constitution, trained by Vicki Oliver, has made three graded stakes starts this year without a win. His form at Tampa Bay Downs was solid while running against cheaper but in the Blue Grass last time he proved no match for the champion Essential Quality. Like many in here, he is a threat to rally past tiring horses, but overall, I find him hard to recommend.

Like the King

The winner of Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks has very good form on both Tapeta and Turf. Unfortunately, his two races on dirt do not look very good at all. That fact, coupled with the reality that he will be moving way up in class in the Kentucky Derby makes me believe that this son of Palace Malice is overmatched on Saturday.


A good juvenile with several strong finishes in graded stakes racing, he has had two tries down in Arkansas this year and ran poorly in each. On the plus side, he has good experience at Churchill Downs, but still, it is hard to get excited about this late runner, considering his recent form.

Brooklyn Strong

This New York-bred son of Wicked Strong has made only one appearance so far this year, and he failed to menace when finishing fifth in the Wood Memorial. Obviously, he will need to show big improvement to contend here, but he should bounce back in his second start off the layoff. In that Wood, he tried to rally up a dead rail and lacked a bit of room early in the lane. The gelding, who won last fall’s Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct, will have big odds on Saturday, but you could do worse with a really long one.

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Brian Zipse

Expert on Horse Racing

Taken to the races at a very young age, Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Professionally, his work has been published on several leading industry sites. Brian served as the Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, where he still writes a regular column and hosts the popular weekly webcast HorseCenter.

Email: [email protected]