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Good vibes at Churchill Downs as Kentucky Derby 147 nears

By
Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality is washed down by his grooms after an early morning workout on the track Thursday to prepare for the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI
Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality is washed down by his grooms after an early morning workout on the track Thursday to prepare for the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo

April 30 (UPI) -- With fans back in the stands, a pleasant weather forecast and a competitive field, Saturday's 147th running of the Kentucky Derby gets horse racing back to a semblance of normal after a year of pandemic scrambles.

Things were going so well on the backstretch two days out from the race that the most popular words from Derby trainers were on the order of "happy," "fun" and "good."

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None of that makes things any easier for the railbirds, though. As usual, the 1 1/4-mile race provides plenty of handicapping puzzles and offers outsize rewards for those who solve them.

Essential Quality is the legitimate and solid favorite -- 2-1 on Mike Battaglia's morning line. He earned that spot, winning all five previous races. Those included last November's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at nearby Keeneland, which sewed up his Eclipse Award as the top male 2-year-old of 2020.

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The Tapit colt, owned and bred by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's Dubai-based Godolphin, returned to win both starts this season -- the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, by 4 1/2 lengths, and the Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland.

In the latter, he was all out to collar front-running Highly Motivated and, if there's a question about Essential Quality's chances Saturday, it would be how much that race four weeks ago sapped his energy.

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Essential Quality is trained by Brad Cox, who like Sheik Mohammed seeks his first Kentucky Derby victory. Regular rider Luis Saez is back aboard to set sail from gate No. 14 in a field of 20 3-year-olds.

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Cox watched Essential Quality and his other Derby starter, Grade II Risen Star Stakes winner Mandaloun, have a light gallop Thursday morning over a sloppy Churchill Downs strip as Mother Nature got the nasty stuff out of the way before expected clearing Friday and Saturday. He was in on the "happy" vibe.

"The serious work is over. Now the fun begins," Cox said.

The second-favorite on the morning line, Rock Your World, starts in gate No. 15. Despite his 5-1 odds, he comes with question marks.

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Trainer John Sadler mapped out a campaign that saw the Candy Ride colt make his first two starts, both wins, on the Santa Anita turf. He then moved to the dirt course to win the Grade I Santa Anita Derby by 4 1/2 lengths in his only other start.

Rock Your World was pretty much left alone on the lead in the Santa Anita Derby, and is unlikely to find a similar scenario at Churchill Downs.

Trainer John Sadler sent Rock Your World out for light exercise in between bursts of rainfall Thursday and he, too, pronounced himself pleased.

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"I'm happy with him and that the rain held off and we didn't get poured on," Sadler said.

The third-favorite is Known Agenda, a Curlin colt who won the Florida Derby but lost the Kentucky Derby post-position draw, assigned the dreaded No. 1 gate. He's 6-1 on Battaglia's morning line and the oddsmaker did not downgrade him because of the draw.

The only other Derby starter at single-digit odds is Hot Rod Charlie. The Oxbow colt spoiled a lot of exacta and trifecta tickets by finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, just 3/4 length behind Essential Quality, at odds of 94-1.

In his 3-year-old debut, he was a gallant third behind winner Medina Spirit in the Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita before trainer Doug O'Neill sent him to the Big Easy, where he won the Louisiana Derby by 2 lengths.

Hot Rod Charlie also galloped in the slop Thursday and O'Neill, who has been highly enthusiastic about the colt's chances, doubled down on the "happy talk."

"I'm happy with him. In fact, I'm very happy," O'Neill said.

Speaking of Medina Spirit, that colt represents trainer Bob Baffert's only chance to win a record seventh Kentucky Derby. Baffert at one point had half a dozen legitimate prospects, only to lose all but Medina Spirit to injuries or disappointing performances.

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Medina Spirit, a Protonico colt, returned from the Lewis to finish a distant second behind stablemate Life Is Good in the Grade II San Felipe before failing to chase down Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby.

Baffert didn't get the message about happy and fun but he did sing the praises of his jockey, John Velazquez, saying he is a "good speed rider and my horse is a speed horse. He'll keep him out of trouble. That's what Medina has going for him -- he's very fast out of the gate. When you have 20 horses, that is the key."

Also in the Derby field, and at tempting odds, are the likes of Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock, Wood Memorial winner Bourbonic and second- and third-place finishers from most of the major prep races.

At really long odds are the first- and second-place finishers from the Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks (a steakhouse chain) on the Turfway Park all-weather course, Like the King and Sainthood; Grade II Tampa Bay Derby winner Helium; and Grade III Lexington Stakes winner King Fury.

Mark Casse, who trains Helium and Florida Derby runner-up Soup and Sandwich, was on board with the good vibes around Churchill Downs.

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"We're ready to go," Casse said. "We're happy with where they're at and we're as good as we can get. They're happy and healthy and we're just trying to maintain that.

"Training horses is like climbing a mountain. A lot of times the climb up to the top is the toughest part, and once you get there, you can relax a little."

King Fury is named for heavyweight boxing champ Tyson Fury, who is expected to be in Louisville to watch his namesake run -- a throwback to the days in the 1940s and before when baseball, boxing and horse racing were the "big three" on U.S. newspapers' sports pages.

"I had tagged [Fury] on Twitter," said trainer Kenny McPeek, "and his agent called me yesterday and asked, 'Are you serious?' And I told him, 'Yeah, c'mon, it'll be fun.' So he's flying in Saturday."

"I like having fun," McPeek said.

Post time for the Kentucky Derby is 6:57 p.m. EDT, and the race will be broadcast by NBC-TV and, on radio, by Horse Racing Radio Network.

Highlights of the 2021 Kentucky Derby

Jockey John Velazquez (L) and trainer Bob Baffert celebrate after their horse, Medina Spirit, won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo

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