Analyzing the running styles of 2021 Kentucky Derby contenders

April 29th, 2021

Post positions for the 2021 Kentucky Derby (G1) were drawn Tuesday, the last step necessary for handicappers to finalize their pace predictions and guesstimate which horses will receive ideal trips.

With 20 horses in the mix, the Kentucky Derby typically unfolds at a fast to average pace. Horses accustomed to racing close to the lead in small fields are frequently shuffled farther back in the pack, while mid-pack and deep closers likewise wind up farther off the pace as the speed horses rush to gain position in the careening run around the first turn.

To aid our handicapping and trip projections, let’s break down the 2021 Kentucky Derby contenders into four running style quadrants, based on their past performances and post positions.

Quadrant 1: Pacesetters

Midnight Bourbon

He has set or pressed the pace in all three of his 2021 prep runs, including a gate-to-wire win in the Lecomte S. (G3). He can make the lead from post 10, unless someone else seizes the early initiative.

Rock Your World

He stalked the pace in his first two starts on turf, but went gate to wire when he switched to dirt for the Santa Anita Derby (G1). Since Rock Your World has never run through dirt kickback, don’t be surprised if he seeks to set the pace again at Churchill Downs.

Quadrant 2: Presser/stalkers

Highly Motivated

He carved out the pace in the Blue Grass S. (G2), but normally races off the lead and is expected to take up stalking tactics in the Derby.

Hot Rod Charlie

Both of his victories have come with forwardly placed trips, including a triumph in the Louisiana Derby (G2), where he led almost all the way. He might not set the pace, but he shouldn’t be too far back.


He employed stalking tactics in all three of his starts this season, highlighted by a win in Risen Star S. (G2). Fast workouts at Churchill Downs suggest he’ll be ready to show speed again in the Derby.

Medina Spirit

He has never finished worse than third after the opening half-mile of a race and won the Robert B. Lewis (G3) by leading all the way. Expect him to reprise the stalking tactics he utilized when he finished second in the Santa Anita Derby.


He broke his maiden in gate-to-wire fashion and was close to the pace in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3), until he got shuffled back. But his Brisnet E1 and E2 Pace ratings are a little light, so expect to see Sainthood settle toward the rear of the second quadrant.

Soup and Sandwich

He dueled for the early lead and came in second in the Florida Derby (G1). He may show even more speed to avoid getting hung wide from post 19.

Quadrant 3: Mid-pack closers

Brooklyn Strong

The Remsen S. (G2) winner typically races in mid-pack but may drop farther back to avoid crowding from post 3.

Dynamic One

He tends to settle toward the rear of a mid-pack position, including when he charged to finish second in the Wood Memorial (G2).

Essential Quality

The Kentucky Derby favorite won the Blue Grass and Breeders’ Futurity (G1) with pressing trips, but both were slow-paced races. The faster pace of the Derby figures to leave Essential Quality with more ground to close, as was the case when he rallied from eighth to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).


He has shown tactical speed, but secured his signature victory when he rallied from behind in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). Why change what works?

Known Agenda

He raced slightly better than mid-pack in the Florida Derby and surged to victory. Conservative tactics might afford him the best chance to work out a clean trip from post 1.

Like the King

He has shown plenty of tactical speed, but won the Jeff Ruby Steaks with an off-the-pace charge and figures to employ those tactics again in the Derby. He has been playing the role of a closer during his morning workouts, in company with stablemate Artie’s Princess.

Super Stock

The versatile Arkansas Derby (G1) winner can be effective from anywhere, but figures to settle farther back than usual to avoid a wide trip from post 18.

Quadrant 4: Deep closers


He trailed by a wide margin early in the Wood Memorial and rallied to victory.

Hidden Stash

He closed from far back in all three of his starts on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, including a runner-up effort in the Tampa Bay Derby.


The Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner does his best work as a deep closer and doesn’t figure to show speed without blinkers.

King Fury

He occasionally races up close or in mid-pack, but won the Lexington (G3) with a rally from far behind and seems unlikely to change this winning strategy.

O Besos

The Louisiana Derby third-place finisher is a deep closer, who typically settles at or near the back of the pack.