The horses are being saddled in the paddock, and the jockeys soon hop aboard their mounts after the call of “riders up.” Then “My Old Kentucky Home” will be played as they make their way to the racetrack for the race. Post time is 6:57 p.m.
The customary walkover from the backside to the paddock was a somewhat crowded affair, but nothing like it normally is when trainers, owners and family and friends escort the horses around the track to the paddock for saddling.
The pandemic wreaked havoc on the Triple Crown schedule in 2020. The Belmont Stakes, normally the final leg of the Triple Crown, was held in June, the Derby in September and the Preakness, usually the second of the three races, came last, with a new date in October. All return to their regular spots on the calendar this year and will allow a limited number of fans.
The Derby regularly brings a crowd of more than 150,000 to Churchill Downs. Organizers, while declining to give a set limit before the event, said reserved seating, which normally accounts for about 60,000 people, would be limited to between 40 percent and 60 percent, depending on the seating area, and infield-only general admission would be kept to about 25 percent to 30 percent. The announced crowd for the Kentucky Oaks on Friday was 41,472, and on Saturday it was 51,838.
Fans are required to wear masks when not eating and drinking, although many were flouting that guideline. Perhaps the most welcome change was that all reserved seats included unlimited food and drinks, a move to reduce lines and the exchange of money.
After a recent stretch of bad weather on Derby weekend, racegoers on Friday and Saturday basked in the sunshine and mid-70s temperatures. Vendors wandered the aisles freely passing out pink lily drinks and mint juleps, normally $12 each. Betting windows were open, although organizers were promoting the use of mobile apps to place bets, and there were no lines, even for the bathrooms.
Longtime Derby weekend patrons praised the newfound elbow room under the famed Twin Spires and asked why it couldn’t always be this way. “Isn’t this great?” was a common phrase.
Jessica Kessinger, a Louisville native, was sitting in a box on the rail that overlooked the finish line; every other box was blocked off with a green tarp. Her group has been coming to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May for several years. Besides last year’s, they all could count on one hand the ones they missed since their first.
“I’m fully vaccinated, and I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” she said. “After a very long year of distress and despair and loneliness, it’s just so nice to be among friends again and celebrate the Derby.”
Essential Quality, the 2-year-old champion who is undefeated in five starts, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in what appears to be a somewhat evenly matched 19-horse Derby field. (King Fury scratched on Friday with a fever.)
After winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, he won the Southwest Stakes on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park in February and the Blue Grass Stakes by a neck over the Derby contender Highly Motivated in April.
With a victory, he would become the ninth undefeated horse to win the Derby (the last was Justify in 2018) and just the third Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner (joining Street Sense and Nyquist). A son of the leading sire Tapit, Essential Quality has a pedigree suited for the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter distance, and he has shown versatility by winning on three tracks and under different pace scenarios.
Brad Cox, who will also saddle the 15-1 shot Mandaloun, is seeking to become the first trainer born in Louisville to win the race. A Derby victory on his first try would cap Cox’s rapid rise to the top of the sport: The 41-year-old won the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer last year after saddling four Breeders’ Cup winners and winning 30 graded stakes races.
“We’ve been very fortunate to win two Kentucky Oaks, seven Breeders’ Cup races and an Eclipse Award, and those are things that I’ll never forget and am very proud of,” Cox said. “But the Kentucky Derby is No. 1, and it would mean a lot.”
Essential Quality is owned by the controversial ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, whose daugher, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, has said the sheikh keeps her captive and she is afraid for her life. Sheikh Mohammed’s highly successful Godolphin racing empire is seeking its first Derby victory after 11 previous tries. Godolphin’s best finish was in 2015, when Frosted finished fourth.
Essential Quality will be ridden by Luis Saez, who is 0 for 7 in the Derby, though he experienced the thrill of winning for a brief period in 2019 before his mount Maximum Security was disqualified for interference.
Coverage of the 147th Kentucky Derby is on NBC. Post time for the mile and a quarter race is 6:57 p.m. It will also be streamed on NBC Sports Live.
Here are the morning-line odds, set by Mike Battaglia of Churchill Downs, for the 19-horse field. Live odds are here. If you’re not at a racetrack, bets can be placed through online wagering sites.
1. Known Agenda (6-1)
2. Like the King (50-1)
3. Brooklyn Strong (50-1)
4. Keepmeinmind (50-1)
5. Sainthood (50-1)
6. O Besos (20-1)
7. Mandaloun (15-1)
8. Medina Spirit (15-1)
9. Hot Rod Charlie (8-1)
10. Midnight Bourbon (20-1)
11. Dynamic One (20-1)
12. Helium (50-1)
13. Hidden Stash (50-1)
14. Essential Quality (2-1)
15. Rock Your World (5-1)
16. King Fury (Scratched)
17. Highly Motivated (10-1)
18. Super Stock (30-1)
19. Soup and Sandwich (30-1)
20. Bourbonic (30-1)
For more than 20 years, the Kentucky Derby’s abnormally large field has required two starting gates — the standard 14-horse gate and a six-stall auxiliary gate. That produced an awkward gap between Posts 14 and 15. In 2020, Churhill Downs debuted a custom-made 20-horse gate that more evenly distributes the horses and cuts down on traffic jams.
With the old gate, the horses closest to the rail needed to break sharply to avoid being pinched by the field as the rest of the field moved inside. And horses on the outside of the main gate or on the inside of the auxiliary gate have been disadvantaged by contact as a result of horses’ tendencies to dart to open space.
The new gate, designed by Australia-based Steriline Racing, not only eliminates that gap but also allows for more room on the rail, making the dreaded No. 1 spot less problematic: It has produced only eight winners, and none since Ferdinand in 1986. This was welcome news for the connections of No. 1 Known Agenda.
For all the talk of the rail post, horses breaking from Post 17 have had it even worse, going 0-for-41. With No. 16 King Fury scratched on Friday with a fever, all horses to his outside will move in one spot, while the post positions remain unchanged. This means No. 17 Highly Motivated’s chances actually improved, as he moved into the 16 hole, and poor Super Stock will now be racing against history.
We know there is a horse race happening today, but here’s a look at the other stars of Churchill Downs.
Joe Drape’s win-place-show picks (his original pick to win, King Fury, was scratched Friday with a fever):
Mandaloun: If you can overlook a sixth-place clunker in the Louisiana Derby, this colt stacks up with the favorites. He has worked lights-out in the morning.
Essential Quality: The Blue Grass victor and 2-year-old champion is a deserving favorite after winning all five of his races. The only question is, how much did the Blue Grass take out of him?
Helium: The Tampa Bay Derby winner is undefeated in three starts, and he runs better every time he starts. Not a lot to go on, but worth a $2 flier.
Melissa Hoppert’s picks:
Known Agenda: He has won two straight races by a combined 13¾ lengths since adding blinkers, and he’ll have the No. 1 jockey in North America on his back. I’ll take my chances on an upset.
Essential Quality: He won his first race on the rescheduled Derby day in September and has not stopped since, earning victories at three racetracks, on fast and sloppy surfaces, while employing a variety of running styles. Certainly the one to beat.
Midnight Bourbon: He has hit the board in all seven of his races, and he picks up a Hall a Fame rider. Plus, this horse has spunk: He was the talk of the backside when he broke free trying to avoid taking a bath.
If walls could talk, this unassuming house on Central Avenue, whose view from the porch perfectly frames Churchill Downs’s iconic Twin Spires, would have plenty of stories to tell.
The house, once owned by a member of the indie rock band Pavement, Bob Nastanovich, is known for its all-day (and night) parties. Rockers and professional athletes regularly rub elbows with trainers and jockeys and racegoers who happen to pass by on the way to the gate (and sometimes never leave).
The house is now owned by the Louisville-based horse trainer Grant Forster, who lives there full time and carries on the Derby party tradition. There are multiple betting pools, chalkboards with odds, three TVs tuned to the races and racing memorabilia and inside jokes galore. There’s also crawfish imported from Louisiana, where Forster also trains, and a Zydeco band on Derby night.
Lifelong friendships have been built because of this house. “These guys are like family to me,” said Forster, who grew up in a prominent Canadian horse racing family.
One regular, Tchalla Green, parked at a house a few doors down for his first Derby, in 2013. He stumbled upon the party and hasn’t missed a Derby, or house party, since (save for last year because of the pandemic).
Another, Jamie Zoeller, was a Pavement superfan. He met Nastanovich at a bar in Chicago in the ‘90s, and Nastanovich told him about his Derby house. Nastanovich (now a chart caller at Prairie Meadows racetrack in Altoona, Iowa) wrote down the address on a bar napkin, and Zoeller carried it around in his wallet until one day he made it, in 1999. He also comes back year after year.
Tim and Beth Clauss of St. Louis have a combined 50 Derbies under their belts. They refused to miss the 2020 race, even though fans were not allowed inside Churchill Downs. They sat on the porch as peaceful protests of the police killing of Breonna Taylor passed in front of the house.
“We love the Kentucky Derby, this is what we live for,” Beth Clauss said. “It’s such a special place to many folks, people come from all over the world to come to this party.”
It all made for a very memorable Derby, but perhaps not the most memorable for Tim Clauss. In 2005, on Oaks day, he sold his tickets for the weekend and put the money in the glove compartment of his car parked in the back yard. He left the house to watch a race from the backside of the track and shortly after received a call, “Tim, you better get back, your car is on fire.”
Here’s a look at how some of the horses got ready earlier on Saturday.
The 5-2 favorite Malathaat, ridden by John Velazquez, held off Search Results to win the Kentucky Oaks by a neck at Churchill Downs on Friday.
She completed the mile-and-an-eighth race in 1 minute 48.99 seconds, the sixth-fastest time in Oaks history, and paid $7 on a $2 bet to win.
It was Velazquez’s second Oaks victory, and the fourth for her trainer, Todd Pletcher. Velazquez will be riding Medina Spirit in the Derby for the two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert. Pletcher will be saddling four horses: Known Agenda, Dynamic One, Bourbonic and Sainthood.
Pletcher and the filly’s owners, Shadwell Stable, did not rule out Malathaat taking on the boys in the Belmont, the final leg of the Triple Crown, on June 5. Malathaat, a daughter of the Belmont runnerup Curlin, is well bred for the grueling mile-and-a-half race.
Gray horses, a rarity and always easy to follow around the racetrack, are a favorite among bettors (my mother included). This year’s favorite, Essential Quality, is a handsome gray son of an accomplished gray sire named Tapit.
The colt’s résumé is impressive, but there is one trend he must buck: Of the 146 victors of the Kentucky Derby, only eight have been gray. Tapit was among the favorites for the 2004 Derby but managed only a ninth-place finish.
The next year, Giacomo won at odds of 50-1 and became the last gray to wear the blanket of roses. The most famous gray Derby champion was a girl: Winning Colors won the 1988 edition to become only the third filly to win the Derby.
A look at the grays who have won the Derby:
Silver Charm (1997)
Winning Colors (1988)
Gato Del Soul (1982)
Spectacular Bid (1979)
The Kentucky Derby is synonymous with many things: roses, hats, mint juleps and, of course, parties. Celebrities mingle in Millionaires Row in the uppermost reaches of the clubhouse, with the race itself just the climax of a weeklong, horse-themed soiree.
But this year, with the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, most of the biggest parties were canceled and the red carpets at the track and elsewhere sat unused.
Normal highlights of the party circuit include the Taste of the Derby, a foodie’s dream as North American racetracks are represented by chefs from each area; Unbridled Eve, a gala at the historic Galt House Hotel; the celebrity-filled Barnstable Brown party, hosted by the Wrigley’s Doublemint twins Patricia Barnstable Brown and Priscilla Barnstable; and the Fillies and Stallions Derby Eve party, where athletes and actors swap moves with whip-toting dancers dressed as jockeys. All were canceled, with organizers vowing they’ll return in 2022.
A few parties did go on, however. The Kentucky Derby Museum, on the grounds of Churchill Downs, hosted its Fillies & Lillies party on Friday with the celebrity chef and Food Network star Darnell Ferguson. The American Lung Association’s annual Derby Eve Gala was moved to a tent outside the Galt House in downtown Louisville. Heat lamps flanked the outdoor stage, and singers from the Nashville-based band Burning Las Vegas danced in white fringe dresses as wind whipped off the Ohio River. Most guests, taking advantage of the open bar, did not seem to mind the breeze.
Tori Kelly sang the National Anthem, and one regular from the party circuit, quarterback Tom Brady, perhaps best known for his recent appearance on a party boat, was spotted in his Derby finest.
Essential Quality is undefeated, the reigning 2-year-old champion and the rightful morning-line favorite for the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby. Jim McIngvale, better known as “Mattress Mac,” believes the colt is $2 to $4 million the best.
On Friday, the Houston furniture magnate put down a $500,000 bet on Essential Quality as part of a sales promotion, driving his odds of 2-1 down to to 1-9. McIngvale, a horse owner himself, put another $400,000 on him Saturday morning. He said he will keep going to the window until post time. You can see live odds here.
It is a publicity-generating hedge for his Gallery Furniture promotion that promises a free mattress to anyone buying one valued at $3,000 or higher if Essential Quality wins.
McIngvale has a history with promotional prop bets. He reportedly lost more than $13 million betting on the Houston Astros in 2019.
“Obviously, I have a vested interest in the favorite winning because if the favorite wins, the customers get free mattresses, and they give us positive PR and word of mouth for the next 10 years,” McIngvale told America’s Best Racing.
Reduced capacity isn’t all that’s different at the Derby: This year there will be no “L” in the program next to the runners’ names to denote the race-day use of the drug Lasix.
All of the Derby entrants will race without the drug for the first time in nearly 50 years as part of the sport’s attempt to move toward the elimination of race-day medication. And whoever crosses the finish line first will become the first to do so without Lasix since Grindstone in 1996.
Lasix, or furosemide, is used to prevent bleeding in the lungs during exercise. But it is also a diuretic that critics say has performance-enhancing effects that may potentially allow a horse to run faster. Lasix, which can also be used by humans to mask the use of performance-enhancing drugs, is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.
The use of Lasix in thoroughbreds has been common in North America since the mid-1970s, but it is widely prohibited in racing throughout the world.
Last year, the owners of the tracks that host the Triple Crown races — Churchill Downs, the Stronach Group and the New York Racing Association — agreed to phase out race-day Lasix, starting with 2-year-olds, and the Breeders’ Cup has also put in place a ban on the drug. Lasix is still permitted for race-day use on horses in the sport’s lower levels.
The favorite in the race, Essential Quality, embodies the beauty and unseemliness that often live side by side in horse racing. The gray son of Tapit came here with a gaudy résumé — a 5 for 5 record and the title of 2-year-old champion.
Essential Quality is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. The shiekh, known arriving for the Keeneland yearling sale by jumbo jet, has spent vast sums in Central Kentucky building a breeding and racing operation but has failed to win a Derby in 11 starts. Horse racing people are happy to talk about that, but they go quiet when asked about the international scandal over his role in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, one of his daughters.
Sheikha Latifa has been seen in numerous videos complaining that her father is holding her captive in Dubai that she fears for her life. “He only cares about himself and his ego,” she said.
The United Nations has demanded that the Sheikh Mohammed produce proof that she is still alive, and a group from the University of Louisville law school filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking it to bar the sheikh and Essential Quality from the Derby. The claim was dismissed in a matter of hours.
Kendrick Carmouche, at 37, is trying to become the first Black jockey in 119 years to win the Kentucky Derby. His horse, Bourbonic, is a 30-1 long shot, but if he wins, he’ll add to Black riders’ distinguished history in the sport of horse racing: Oliver Lewis won the first Derby in 1875, and 15 of the first 28 editions of the race were won by Black jockeys, most recently by Jimmy Winkfield in 1902.
“Me being here means something to a lot of people,” he said. “We helped found this sport, and I have an opportunity to remind people of that.”
Carmouche is the son of Sylvester Carmouche, himself a noteworthy figure in the sport, having won nearly 700 races at big-time tracks. But he also served a 10-year suspension after he steered his horse out of a fog-shrouded race, waited for the field to circle the oval, then rode ahead of the pack to what appeared to be an easy victory.
Kendrick Carmouche grew up traveling to bush tracks with his father during his suspension.
“I’ve covered a lot of pavement, put in a lot of hard work and stayed positive through hard times,” he said. “I learned all that from my Pops.”