Early Frontrunners on the 2021 Road to the Kentucky Derby

| March 4, 2021 8:49 am PST

The 2021 Kentucky Derby is scheduled for its traditional first Saturday in May, which this year is May 1st. It’s unlikely that it will be rescheduled to October as it was last year, but that seemed unlikely last year around this time, too.

Incidentally, If you want more background on the Kentucky Derby itself, you can put yourself some knowledge with our complete guide to betting on the Kentucky Derby.

The 2021 Kentucky Derby Leaderboard

Since 2012—when the Kentucky Derby stopped selecting starters based solely on earnings—the Road to the Kentucky Derby was implemented to make the selection process more transparent and easier to follow.

The Road is comprised of three dozen or so stakes races (it can vary from year to year), which each award the top four finishers points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

The races are split into three distinct phases separated by the number of points awarded by the races: The early races (19 stakes races this year) are considered the Prep Season, and award points of 10-4-2-1 to the first through fourth-place finishers.

Later qualifying races are considered part of the Championship Series, which itself is split into two legs: Six stakes races that award more points (50-20-10-5) to the four top finishers, and a final eight stakes races each awarding 100-40-20-10 points.

And just to keep you on your toes, there are two “wild-card” stakes races—the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile scheduled early in the Prep Season and the Lexington Stakes, which is run among the last of the Road runs. Those two wild-card races award points to the first through fourth place finishers thus: 20-8-4-2.

As you can see, the points set-up makes the two months preceding the Kentucky Derby an exciting but emotionally mercurial time for thoroughbred contenders, jockeys, trainers, owners, and of course, fans.

Incidentally, speaking of the fans, Churchill Downs expects to allow spectators to attend the 2021 Kentucky Derby on a limited basis. Currently, they’re talking about filling 40-50% of their reserved seats, but the sale of general admission tickets is still “under consideration.”

Greatest Honour (#1 with 60 points)

Owned by Courtlandt Farms and trained by Claude R. (“Shug”) McGaughey III, Greatest Honour picked up his initial ten Road to the Kentucky Derby points with a first-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January. He then scored an additional 50 points with a nail-biter win in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (also at Gulfstream) February 27th.  

Mandaloun (#2 with 52 points)

Since breaking his maiden at Keeneland last October, Mandaloun has proceeded to make his mark on the thoroughbred racing world, first with a third-place finish in the Le Comte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January, which put him on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with two points.

His win at the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans (where he wore blinkers for the first time in his brief career) established his current #2 leaderboard position. Mandaloun is owned by Juddmonte Farms and his trainer is Brad H. Cox.

Essential Quality (#3 with 40 points)

Essential Quality has done nothing but win in his brief career on the track, from his maiden at Churchill Downs in September 2020, establishing an early lead on KD leaderboard points with 20 points in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in October, and then adding ten more points with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland in November.

He scored his latest ten points in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn in late February. His jockey for that ride—Luis Saez—told Bloodhorse: “He switched leads [coming into the home stretch] and just took off. What a nice horse. He finished very strong and I still had a lot of horse.”

Essential Quality’s trainer is Brad H. Cox, and he’s owned by Godolphin Stables.

Midnight Bourbon (#4 with 26 points)

Midnight Bourbon has been on the RTTKD leaderboard since early September 2020, when he scored his first four KD points with a second-place finish in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs. He picked up another two KD points with a third in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, and then ten points with a first-place finish in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. His latest ten points come from a third-place in the Risen Star Stakes.

Steve Asmussen trains Midnight Bourbon for Winchell Thoroughbreds.

Proxy (#5 with 24 points)

Owned by Godolphin Stables and trained by Michael Stidham, Proxy owes his position on the leaderboard to finishing second in both his “Road” trips—the Lecomte Stakes in January (four points) and the Risen Star Stakes (20 points) in February. His connections are considering adding blinkers to his racing equipment.

Thoroughbred Daily News recently said that Proxy (sired by Tapit) “has all the makings of a horse who quietly accrues qualifying points without an exclamation-point race, but then suddenly looks like a ‘live’ wiseguy play as he rounds into peak form during Derby week.”

Time will tell.

Keepmeinmind (#6 with 18 points)

Trained by Robert Diodoro, Keepmeinmind got on the RTTKD scoreboard early with four points from his second-place finish in the Clairborne Breeders’ Futurity back in October. He picked up another four points with a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in early November, and then chalked up ten more Road points with a win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in late November.

Until early February, Keemeinmind was jointly owned by Cypress Creek and Arnold Bennewith, but he made enough of an impression to convince Spendthrift Farms to acquire a 50% ownership stake in him.

Spielberg (#7 with 17 points)

Under Bob Baffert’s training, Spielberg picked up his first two points with a third-place finish in the American Pharoah Stakes in September, then jumped higher on the Road leaderboard with ten-point win at the Los Alamitos Futurity in December. He picked up one more point with a fourth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in late January, and his latest four points are from a second-place finish in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Despite some disappointing early performances, Baffert remains confident Spielberg has what it takes to be a serious KD contender.

Jackie’s Warrior (#8 with 14 points)

One of Steve Asmussen’s trainees, Jackie’s Warrior got on the Road leaderboard with ten points with a first-place finish in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park back in October. His next two points were the result of a fourth-place finish in the Breeder Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland in November. Jackie’s Warrior picked up his latest two points with a third-place finish in the Southwest Stakes at Oakland Park.

Jackie’s Warrior is owned by J. Kirk and Judy Robison.

Rombauer (#9 with 14 points)

Rombauer picked up his first four points back in September with a second-place finish in the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita. He missed an opportunity to add more to his score when he finished fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile In November, but changed his trajectory almost immediately with a first-place finish in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, adding ten more points to this Road score.

The Paulick Report pointed out recently that regardless of any particular race’s final outcome, Rombauer seems to have a real talent for finishing the final stretch of a race in better position than he began it. If he can learn to to exercise that talent a bit earlier, he could easily end up at Churchill Downs thon May 1st.

Rombauer is trained by Michael W. McCarthy and owned by John and Diane Fradkin.

Medina Spirit (#10 with 14 points)

Medina Spirit, a product of Zedan Racing Stables and trainer Bob Baffert, picked up all of his Road points at Santa Anita—and all in one month: A second-place finish in the Sham Stakes on New Year’s Day (four points) and a win in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes near the end of January for an additional ten points.

Incidentally, Medina Spirit was purchased for the bargain basement price of $35,000—about what today’s drivers are spending on a dependable but low-end sedan—and so far, he’s earned $105,000 for his connections.

Capo Kane (#11 with 12 points)

Trained by Harold Wyner, Capo Kane rang in 2021 right with a first-place finish in the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct January 1—which also put ten points next to his name on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. He followed that up with a third-place finish in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct in early February.

His next test will most likely be the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 6th. Capo Kane is owned by Bing Cherry Racing and Leonard Liberto.

Papetu (#12 with 11 points)

Owned by Magic Stables, LLC, Papetu picked up a single RTTKD point with Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in late January. He returned to Gulfstream Park a month and did considerably better with a third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, adding ten points to his leaderboard score.

Veteran trainer Antonio Sano told the Paulick Report last year that Papetu was one of the two best horses in his barn.

Lagniappe, Part I: The European Road to the Kentucky Derby

Two starting positions are reserved for top thoroughbreds in Europe and in Japan, which both have their own Roads to the Kentucky Derby.

In Europe, there are currently four horses tied for the #1 European leaderboard position with ten points each.

  • The French-born Sealiway
  • Three Irish thoroughbreds: Mac Swiney, New Mandate, and High Definition

Lagniappe, Part II: Japan’s Road to the Kentucky Derby

The top four contenders in Japan’s Road to the Kentucky derby aren’t quite so evenly matched.

  • La Perouse is in first place on the Japanese leaderboard with 30 points
  • Alain Barows follows with 20 points
  • Probatio has 12
  • Lemon Pop comes in with 10 points

What’s Next: The 2021 Championship Season

With the increased points available during both legs of the Kentucky Derby Championship Series, we can expect a great deal of reshuffling in the order of the leaderboard.

Early frontrunners bathing in the warmth of media attention become mere footnotes in a single run, while unknowns can (and very often do) jump to the top of the leaderboard at the last minute to earn a position in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby.

For example, five of the top eight contenders I profiled last year for my early kook at probable Kentucky Derby Contenders made it to Louisville in October. The other three (including the top two on the RTTKD leaderboard when I put those profiles together) had to watch the Derby on television, just like the rest of us.

I’ll be reviewing as many of the Championship Series as I can as the last couple of months go by, so keep an eye on our picks section.

And of course, if you’re interested in placing a wager—whenever, wherever—we have a list of the best horse racing betting sites, as well.

J.W. Paine
J.W. Paine

J.W. Paine is one of the most experienced writers at GamblingSites.com. He's written for television and the printed media, and is a published novelist (as Tom Elliott).

Paine loves writing about Las Vegas nearly as much he loves living here. An experienced gambler, he's especially familiar with thoroughbred horseracing, poker, blackjack, and slots.

More Posts by J.W. Contact J.W.

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