Essential Quality 2-1 favorite for 147th Kentucky Derby

MICHAEL CONROY/THE ASSOCIATED PRESSEssential Quality and jockey Luis Saez win the 2020 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland.


Essential Quality and jockey Luis Saez win the 2020 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland.

Nobody wants the No. 1 post in the Kentucky Derby, and as the draw for the 147th Run for the Roses wound down on Tuesday morning, the dreaded 1 was among three of 20 starting positions left.

And the undefeated champ’s name was still out there.

But Essential Quality settled for No. 14, after the Todd Pletcher-trained Known Agenda was stuck with the 1, and Essential Quality will be the 2-1 morning-line favorite heading into Saturday’s Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

The scheduled post time for the Derby is 6:57, and NBCSN will broadcast from 12:30-2:30 p.m. before switching to NBC from 2:30-7:30.

Essential Quality brings a 5-0 career record into Saturday’s Derby, most recently a tight duel with the Chad Brown-trained Highly Motivated in the Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 3, by far the most difficult assignment so far for Essential Quality.

That stretch run was enough to make trainer Brad Cox “a bit” nervous, he ruefully said during the draw broadcast.

“[Jockey] Luis [Saez] didn’t seem to be, but I was maybe a touch,” Cox said. “But he got the job done, bounced out of it in good order, which is the main thing, and he really seems to be taking shape in the last four, five days, with his breeze and how he came out of it. His game face is on.”

Essential Quality breezed five furlongs in 1:00.40 on the Churchill main track last Saturday.

Speaking of nerves, waiting for your Derby favorite’s name to come up while the 1 post was still available wasn’t exactly a comfortable feeling, Cox said.

The Derby winner has come from the 1 hole just eight times in 146 runnings of the Derby, and not since Ferdinand did it in 1986.

“It got a little nerve-racking with both horses still to go and the rail still being out there,” he said. “I think it’ll be a good spot. He’s got good tactical speed that he’ll be able to get into a good position from there.”

Cox is one of four trainers with more than one horse entered in the Derby, and will also saddle Mandaloun, beaten by 11 lengths behind Hot Rod Charlie as the 6-5 betting favorite in the Grade II Louisiana Derby last time out.

“He certainly trains like he could be sitting on a big one, and we’re hopeful we get that Risen Star race and not the Louisiana Derby race,” Cox said.

Pletcher will have four horses in the Derby for the fifth time.

Besides Grade I Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, the 6-1 third choice on the morning line, Pletcher has long shots Sainthood (post No. 5), Dynamic One (11) and Bourbonic, who upset the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct at 72-1, stuck all the way out in post No. 20.

“It certainly wasn’t the one we were hoping for [for Known Agenda], but I’ve often said, sometimes you get bad trips from good posts and good trips from bad posts,” Pletcher said. “Hopefully, with the new starting gate, that’ll make a little bit of a difference, but no question about it, it’s not what we wanted.

“That’s what I was hoping for, for Sainthood and Bourbonic to draw inside and Dynamic One and Known Agenda to draw more in the middle to outside. We did OK with two of them, and two of them not, but there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll focus on the things we can control.”

Pletcher predicted that one of the California-based horses would be the controlling speed in the early portions of the race.

Among them are the top two, respectively, from the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, Rock Your World and the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit, and Hot Rod Charlie, trained by Doug O’Neill.

Hot Rod Charlie, trained by John Sadler, is the 5-1 second choice.

“I don’t know which one, but I think there’s enough pace in here, with the California contingent and Hot Rod Charlie coming out of the Louisiana Derby,” Pletcher said. “I think there’s going to be an honest pace. I don’t expect it to be blistering by any means, but I’m hoping it’s at least honest.”

“He has a good, high cruising speed,” Sadler said of Rock Your World. “He’s fast, and he can carry it a long distance, so I imagine he’ll be forwardly placed. I could see him second or third, depending on what the pace is. I would rather lose a lttle gound and be clear than down on the side, so we’re generally happy with the post.”

“He’ll [jockey Flavien Prat] go at it and then just play the pace,” O’Neill said. “If it’s slow and nobody else goes, at least we showed in the Louisiana Derby that we could go to the front. I think Flavien will go in with an open mind and then just play the break.”

Trainers Steve Asmussen (Midnight Bourbon, Super Stock) and Mark Casse (Helium, Soup and Sandwich) also have multiple entries.

“I thought it was an ideal draw for Midnight Bourbon,” Asmussen said. “The key to him having success is to be away cleanly, get into a high rhythm. I think Mike [Smith] suits him beautifully. The 10 draw, with the dual loading, would make him second-to-last to load, so he wouldn’t have to stand there too long. That gives him the best possible chance.

“He’s [Super Stock] extremely versatile and will go wherever Ricardo [Santana] wants him to.”

Brown said the 17 post for Highly Motivated wasn’t ideal, but it could’ve been worse.

“Certainly when it was late in the process and the 1 was still out there I would’ve paused and put 17 back on my wish list,” he said. “Like the Oaks, it’s a little farther outside than we would have liked, but there’s a long run into the turn and this horse clearly has a lot of natural speed. Hopefully we’ll be forward enough to come over and get some position into the first turn.”

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