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, 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. Infield-only general admission will be kept to about 25 percent to 30 percent capacity, they said. That would put the crowd at around 50,000. The announced crowd for the Kentucky Oaks on Friday was 41,472.
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.
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.
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)
Here’s a look at how some of the horses got ready earlier on Saturday.