Keeler Johnson's top five contenders to watch for the Kentucky Derby

April 26th, 2021

The Kentucky Derby (G1) is just five days away, and the post position draw is coming up in about 24 hours. It’s time to start finalizing our selections for the “Run for the Roses."

While I reserve the right to tweak my opinions over the next few days (the post position draw will have an impact), here’s where I’m leaning with my top five contenders for the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

1. Highly Motivated

Highly Motivated was beaten a neck by Essential Quality in the Blue Grass S. (G2), but I love the way he has been prepared for Kentucky Derby, with two prep runs designed to bring him to peak form on the first Saturday in May.

He is already fast enough to win, with a trio of 102 Brisnet Speed ratings, and a couple sharp workouts since the Blue Grass suggest he is ready for another step forward.

2. Known Agenda

The Florida Derby (G1) winner has improved by leaps and bounds since he added blinkers during the winter.

Trained by two-time Kentucky Derby winner Todd Pletcher, Known Agenda finished fast in the Florida Derby to earn a 112 Brisnet Late Pace rating and a 101 Brisnet Speed rating. The son of Curlin is bred top and bottom to thrive at 1 1/4 miles on the first Saturday in May, and I don’t think we’ve seen his best yet.

3. Essential Quality

The undefeated champion two-year-old male of 2020 brings an undefeated record, including a tenacious victory over Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass.

Essential Quality is versatile in terms of running style and always finds a way to win for trainer Brad Cox, but he’ll be the favorite on the first Saturday in May, a less-than-enticing prospect, since he isn’t a standout on the Brisnet Speed rating scale.

4. O Besos

A son of 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, O Besos showed steady improvement at Fair Grounds, where he most recently rallied smoothly up the rail to finish third, two lengths behind the winner, in the Louisiana Derby (G2).

O Besos sprinted the final three furlongs in :37.29, and strong finishing speed is often indicative of a live Kentucky Derby contender. With a ground-saving ride in the Kentucky Derby, O Besos can outrun expectations and finish on the board at a big price.

5. King Fury

King Fury received a perfect pace setup in the Lexington (G3), when he charged from behind blazing early fractions to dominate by 2 3/4 lengths. He also received a perfect trip, as he rallied up the inside and split horses coming off the final turn.

But the Lexington wasn’t King Fury’s first promising performance. He also won the 2020 Street Sense S. at Churchill Downs over future Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Super Stock.

King Fury is proven over fast and sloppy tracks and is another capable longshot who could benefit from a rail-skimming ride on the first Saturday in May.

Good luck!