Opinion: Essential Quality is Kentucky Derby favorite – but King Fury has skills to win at Churchill Downs

Ever since Churchill Downs instituted a points system in 2013 to qualify horses for the Kentucky Derby, the race has been pretty kind to the favorites. In fact, before Country House’s 65-1 upset via disqualification in 2019, six straight winners of the race had been the odds-on choice when they went into the starting gate. 

The reason is simple. The points system has weeded out the pure sprinters who never had a chance to win the Derby in the first place but would often shoot to the front, set a torrid pace that compromised some of the contenders and then tire out on the far turn, creating traffic jams that added to the randomness of the finish. With a more orderly race and a pace that doesn’t completely melt down, the horses that have demonstrated the most brilliance before the Derby tend to perform pretty well on the big day. 

But when you handicap this year’s Derby through the lens of what’s happened in the recent past, one thing becomes clear: The favorite, unbeaten Essential Quality, is not nearly a good enough horse to justify the meager odds he’ll offer bettors. At the same time, the rest of the field looks so evenly matched it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some horses with big odds hit the board or even win the race.

For that reason, we’ll take a shot this year with King Fury, who is 20-1 on the morning line despite a dazzling stretch-running win in the Lexington States on April 10.

There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of King Fury, who was a massive disappointment at age two after being purchased as a yearling for $950,000. When he went up against the likes of Essential Quality or Hot Rod Charlie last fall, he didn’t even come close to winning. 

An exercise rider works out Essential Quality at Churchill Downs. (Photo: Jamie Rhodes, USA TODAY Sports)

But in his 3-year old debut in the Lexington, King Fury looked like a different horse. Despite a 4 ½-month layoff, longtime Kentucky-based trainer Kenny McPeek had him fit enough to lay 10 lengths off the early pace, make a bold move around the far turn and rather easily extend out to a 2 ¾-length win while posting a Beyer Speed Figure of 96, among the best of any horse in the race.

Often, horses coming off a long layoff will run their best race the second time out. If that holds true for King Fury, he could be primed for a peak performance on Saturday. 

Another horse who offers good value is Chad Brown-trained Highly Motivated.

Though Highly Motivated hasn’t visited the winners’ circle yet in two starts as a 3-year old, his second-place finish to Essential Quality in the Blue Grass Stakes was noteworthy. In his first career start around two turns, Highly Motivated changed tactics from his previous races and went straight to the lead with Essential Quality pressing him from the outside.

At the top of the stretch, Essential Quality pulled even and had a clear shot to pull away for an impressive win. Instead, it took a vigorous ride from Luis Saez to get Essential Quality home by a neck, only taking the lead roughly 30 yards from the wire.

Based on that performance alone, Highly Motivated looks like a horse with plenty of room to improve for the Derby. 

A third longshot worth a look here is Mandaloun, who is 15-1 on the morning line. After posting a strong win Feb. 13 in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds with a 98 Beyer Speed Figure, Mandaloun was the favorite in the Louisiana Derby but just didn’t factor in the race at all and finished a dull sixth against many of the same horses he had beaten just a month earlier. 

No explanation or excuse was given by trainer Brad Cox for why Mandaloun took a big step back after improving in each of his first four career races, but the horse showed so much promise earlier and has trained well enough since that I’m willing to throw the Louisiana Derby out completely.

It’s certainly possible that Essential Quality will prove to be the best of this bunch and continue the trend of winning favorites. At this point in his career, the gray colt has done little wrong, winning all five career starts including last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But both the speed figures and the eye test suggest that this is a consistent horse who has been maximizing his potential, not a superior animal with amazing upside that we haven’t seen yet.

The Derby’s second choice, Rock Your World, had a pretty easy time of things in the Santa Anita Derby, his third career start. But that field was particularly weak this year, and Rock Your World was able to go wire-to-wire, which is an unlikely tactic for him in this race. At 5-1 or less, there’s too many questions to answer. 

Florida Derby winner Known Agenda looks like an improving horse but got buried in the No. 1 post position, which will compromise his chances of winning. Hot Rod Charlie, the Louisiana Derby winner, comes in just 2-for-7 lifetime. 

With so many legitimate knocks against the favorites, this is a great year to take some chances. By keying King Fury, Highly Motivated and Mandaloun in trifectas and superfectas along with a couple of the favorites, I’m not only backing horses that seem likely to peak on Derby Day but will give myself a chance at a huge payoff if they come in. 

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