LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby, the oldest continuously held sporting event in the United States, returns to the first Saturday in May after being run last year in September without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Coverage begins on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time on NBC Sports Network and will continue on NBC at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time. Post time is 6:57 p.m.
Here’s what else you need to know about the 147th running of the race:
Fans return, but attendance is limited.
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. An infield-only general admission ticket has recently been added and will be kept to about 25 percent to 30 percent capacity, they said. That would put the crowd at around 50,000.
Fans will be given temperature checks at the gates, and they’ll be required to wear masks when not eating and drinking. All reserved seats include unlimited food and drinks this year, a move to reduce lines and the exchange of money. Organizers are also promoting the use of mobile apps to place bets, although betting windows will be open.
An undefeated favorite tops the 19-horse field.
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 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.
No Lasix in first step toward ban of race-day medication.
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 three 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 sport’s lower levels.
Other horses and people to watch.
Todd Pletcher has four entrants in the Derby: the Florida Derby winner Known Agenda (6-1 in the morning line), the Wood Memorial runner-up Dynamic One (20-1), the Wood Memorial winner Bourbonic (30-1) and the Jeff Ruby Steaks runner-up Sainthood (50-1). This is the sixth time the 53-year-old Pletcher has had four or more Derby starters in a given year. He saddled his first Derby horse in 2000 and comes into this year with a record 55 Derby starters. He won the Derby in 2010 with Super Saver and in 2017 with Always Dreaming.
Bob Baffert, who won the 2020 Derby with Authentic, enters the race tied with Ben Jones for the most Derby wins by a trainer with six. Baffert will try to make the record all his own when he sends out Medina Spirit (15-1), who will have the same jockey as Authentic, John Velazquez. (Jones won six times between 1938 and 1952.)
Kendrick Carmouche, who will be aboard Bourbonic, will try to become the first Black jockey in 119 years to win the Kentucky Derby. Carmouche knows the history of African-Americans in America’s most famous race: 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 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.”
Besides the trainers and jockeys, there are always a few horses with fun names that capture the attention of bettors and casual fans alike. The catchiest name this year belongs to Soup and Sandwich, who is owned by Charlotte C. Weber, the granddaughter of the Campbell Soup Company founder. Other attention-getters include two horses with bourbon influences, Midnight Bourbon and Bourbonic (20-1); O Besos, who pulls the O from his sire, Orb, and the Besos, which is kisses in Spanish, from his dam, Snuggs and Kisses; the New York-bred Brooklyn Strong; and the generally memorable Hot Rod Charlie and Rock Your World.