Log In

Likely Favorite Essential Quality: No Derby Strikes

by Jon White

April 22, 2021

Essential Quality will take an unblemished record into the 147th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1. He’s five for five going into the 1 1/4-mile classic and, in all likelihood, will be the favorite when the field breaks from the 20-stall starting gate.

Additionally, Essential Quality goes into the Run for the Roses with no strikes in my Derby Strikes System (DSS).

My latest Kentucky Derby Top 10, including each horse’s number of strikes in parentheses, is below:

Rank Horse (Number of Strikes)

1. Essential Quality (0 strikes)
2. Rock Your World (2 strikes)
3. Known Agenda (0 strikes)
4. Hot Rod Charlie (1 strike)
5. Medina Spirit (0 strikes)
6. Highly Motivated (2 strikes)
7. Midnight Bourbon (1 strike)
8. Mandaloun (1 strike)
9. Super Stock (1 strike)
10. Helium (1 strike)

I have Rock Your World ranked No. 2 even though he has two strikes. I would, of course, much prefer that he have zero strikes or one strike. That’s because the vast majority (81%) of the Kentucky Derby winners have zero strikes or one strike going back to 1973 and excluding the Kentucky Derby of 2020 when the race was run in September.

One of the reasons I have Rock Your World ranked so high at No. 2 are some resemblances to 2018 Kentucky Derby winner Justify. Like Rock Your World, Justify had two strikes. But that did not keep me from ranking Justify No. 1 going into the Kentucky Derby.

Justify, unraced as a 2-year-old, won the Santa Anita Derby by daylight (three lengths) and was three for three going into the Kentucky Derby.

Rock Your World also was unraced as a 2-year-old. He likewise won the Santa Anita Derby by daylight (4 1/4 lengths) and is three for three and going into the Kentucky Derby.

Highly Motivated is the only other horse on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 who has more than one strike. I see Highly Motivated as someone with the credentials to win the Kentucky Derby despite having two strikes.

I believe Highly Motivated’s splendid effort to lose Keeneland’s Grade II Blue Grass Stakes by just a neck to Essential Quality on April 3 gives Highly Motivated a license to be a major player in the Kentucky Derby. Highly Motivated’s sparkling 4 1/4-length victory in Keeneland’s Nyquist Stakes last Nov. 6 also suggests that he merits respect on May 1.

Concert Tour exits my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week after trainer Bob Baffert announced that the colt would not be running in the Kentucky Derby and instead will be pointed to the Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 15.

Unlike me, those who dropped Concert Tour in their Kentucky Derby rankings last week were proven correct to do so. It turns out I was wrong to keep him so high on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 at No. 3 after he had finished third as the 3-10 favorite in the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 10.


I came up with the DSS to try and determine a horse’s chances to win the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May from both tactical and historical perspectives. The DSS consists of eight categories. When a horse does not qualify in one of the categories, the horse gets a strike. The eight categories are listed at the end of this column/blog/article.

A number of the categories in the DSS are associated with the Kentucky Derby being run in May. Consequently, when the race was switched from May 2 to Sept. 5 last year due to the pandemic, it rendered the DSS unworkable.

The DSS is back in 2021 now that the Kentucky Derby has returned to its traditional spot on the calendar.

Since 1973 and again excluding 2020 when the race was run in September, 39 out of the 48 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike, while seven have had two strikes and only one has had more than two strikes.

The seven Kentucky Derby winners with two strikes were:

Cannonade (1974) Categories 3 and 4
Ferdinand (1986) Categories 2 and 4
Sea Hero (1993) Categories 3 and 5
Funny Cide (2003) Categories 2 and 8
Giacomo (2015) Categories 2 and 5
Justify (2018) Categories 1 and 8
Country House (2019) Categories 2 and 3

The only Kentucky Derby winner with more than two strikes was:

Mine That Bird (2009) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 8

In the 2019 Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security had zero strikes and finished first by 1 1/4 lengths. However, the stewards disqualified Maximum Security and placed him 17th when ruling that he had committed a foul by veering out sharply nearing the five-sixteenths marker to cause interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy.

According to the DSS, among the “likely starters” listed by Churchill Downs as of April 21, there is a very good chance that the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner is one of the following nine horses (in alphabetical order) who have zero strikes or one strike:

Horse (Strikes) Category or Categories

Essential Quality (0)
Helium (1) Category 5
Hot Rod Charlie (1) Category 4
Known Agenda (0)
Like the King (0)
Mandaloun (1) Category 4
Medina Spirit (0)
Midnight Bourbon (1) Category 4
Super Stock (1) Category 3

In alphabetical order, these are horses with two strikes listed as “likely starters” as of April 21:

Bourbonic (2) Categories 1 and 3
Caddo River (2) Categories 2 and 4
Hidden Stash (2) Categories 2 and 5
Highly Motivated (2) Categories 2 and 4
O Besos (2) Categories 2 and 3
Rock Your World (2) Categories 1 and 7
Sainthood (2) Categories 2 and 7
Soup and Sandwich (2) Categories 2 and 7

The two horses with three strikes listed as a “likely starter” as of April 21 are:

Dynamic One (3) Categories 1, 2 and 4
Get Her Number (3) Categories 3, 4 and 5

Listed as a “possible starter” by Churchill is:

Dream Shake (3 strikes) Categories 2, 4 and 7

Listed as “next up in order of preference” by Churchill are:

Hozier (3 strikes) Categories 2, 3 and 5
King Fury (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 6
Keepmeinmind (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
Starrininmydreams (3 strikes) Categories 2, 4 and 5


These are the number of strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973 (again, the eight categories in the Derby Strikes System are listed at the end of this column/blog/article):

2020 race run in September
2019 Country House (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 3*
2018 Justify (2 strikes) Categories 1 and 7
2017 Always Dreaming (1 strike) Category 1
2016 Nyquist (0 strikes)
2015 American Pharoah (0 strikes)
2014 California Chrome (0 strikes)
2013 Orb (0 strikes)
2012 I’ll Have Another (0 strikes)
2011 Animal Kingdom (0 strikes)
2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4
2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9
2008 Big Brown (0 strikes)
2007 Street Sense (0 strikes)
2006 Barbaro (0 strikes)
2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5
2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes)
2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 8
2002 War Emblem (0 strikes)
2001 Monarchos (0 strikes)
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6
1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5
1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes)
1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4
1996 Grindstone (0 strikes)
1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes)
1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes)
1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes)
1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes)
1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3
1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes)
1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes)
1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2
1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4
1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes)
1984 Swale (0 strikes)
1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1
1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3
1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1
1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes)
1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes)
1978 Affirmed (0 strikes)
1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes)
1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes)
1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes)
1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4
1973 Secretariat (0 strikes)

*Maximum Security (0 strikes) finished first, disqualified and placed 17th


Fifty years ago on the first Saturday in May, I was sitting in my father’s car in the parking lot at Yakima Meadows, a track in Central Washington.

I had become a huge horse racing fan by then. As such, I was extremely interested in the 1971 Kentucky Derby.

My very first Kentucky Derby pick was Dancer’s Image in 1968. He finished first and paid $9.20 for each $2 win ticket.

However, when the post-race urinalysis of Dancer’s Image showed the presence of Butazolidin, which at the time was a prohibited medication in Kentucky, second-place finisher Forward Pass was declared the winner of the 1968 Kentucky Derby except for pari-mutuel payoffs. First purse money and the winning trophy were awarded to Forward Pass by order of the Kentucky State Racing Commission.

Peter Fuller, the owner of Dancer’s Image, initiated a legal battle that lasted for years in a futile attempt to overturn Dancer’s Image’s disqualification.

My Kentucky Derby pick in 1969 was the undefeated Majestic Prince, who prevailed by a neck and paid $4.80 as the favorite.

After picking back-to-back Kentucky Derby winners, I missed in 1970. My selection was Personality, who finished eighth. Dust Commander won and paid $32.60. Personality went on to win the Preakness, with Dust Commander finishing ninth. Personality, coupled in the wagering with High Echelon, paid $11 to win.

I picked Unconscious in the 1971 Kentucky Derby. Sent away as the 5-2 favorite in the field of 20, he finished fifth.

In 1971, Yakima Meadows did not even show the Kentucky Derby on any of its television monitors. Because I would not be able to watch the race on TV, I decided to do the next-best thing by listening to it on my transistor radio.

When I heard during the radio call that Canonero II had taken the lead, I remember thinking, “Who? Who is that?”

I walked back into the track.

“Who won it?” my dad asked.

“Some horse named Canonero II,” I said.

“Who’s that?” my dad asked.

Without question, the story of Canonero II is one of the most colorful in the history of American racing.

A Kentucky-bred son of the English-bred sire Pretendre (runner-up in the 1966 Epsom Derby), Canonero II fetched a first and only bid of $1,200 at the 1967 Keeneland September yearling sale. Bloodstock agent Luis Navas purchased the yearling, then sold him to Venezuelan businessman Pedro Baptista.

“Baptista’s plumbing and pipe manufacturing company was in dire financial straits and was on the verge of bankruptcy,” BloodHorse’s Steve Haskin wrote in 2011. “In order to continue purchasing horses, he registered them under the name of his son-in-law, Edgar Caibett.”

Canonero II was turned over to trainer Juan Arias. The bay colt won a race at about six furlongs by 6 1/2 lengths on Aug. 8, 1970.

Because Baptista was in desperate need for money, Canonero II then was sent to Del Mar. The hope was to sell the colt.

Canonero II finished third at odds of 21-1 in a six-furlong allowance race at Del Mar on Sept. 5. He then ran fifth at 10-1 in the six-furlong Del Mar Futurity, which was won by the fine filly June Darling.

No less than the great trainer Charlie Whittingham expressed interest in purchasing Canonero II.

“When Whittingham found out the colt could be bought for $70,000, he attempted to buy him for one of his main clients, Mary Jones,” Haskin wrote. “Unfortunately, no one with the horse could speak English, the first of many blunders by Baptista. Unable to get a firm price, Whittingham gave up, and Canonero II returned to Venezuela.”

From Dec. 17 to April 10, Canonero II made nine starts in Venezuela, winning six of them. One of those six victories came in a race at about 1 1/4 miles on March 7. He won by 2 1/2 lengths while defeating 13 foes.

After Canonero II ran third in a race at about 1 1/8 miles on April 10, the decision was made to send him back to the United States for the Kentucky Derby.

One week after his April 10 race, “Canonero II boarded a plane for Miami…Shortly after taking off, the plane was forced to return due to mechanical failure,” Haskin wrote. “The second attempt wasn’t any more successful, as one of the engines caught on fire and the plane was forced to return once again. The only other plane they could find was a cargo plane filled with chickens and ducks, which became Canonero’s travel companions.

“Finally, a weary Canonero arrived in Miami. But airport officials discovered the horse had no papers or blood work, so he was forced to remain on the plane for 12 hours in the sweltering heat, nearly becoming dehydrated…By the time he was released from quarantine, Canonero was a physical mess.”

It did not help Canonero that he then was vanned the 900 miles from Miami to Louisville, a trip that took 20 hours.

“When Canonero’s name entered the Derby picture, the Caliente Future Book [the only one back then] quoted him at odds of 500-1,” Haskin wrote.

Canonero II had one recorded workout at Churchill Downs prior to the May 1 Kentucky Derby. The track condition was “slow.” So was Canonero II, who was timed in :53 4/5, which elicited laughter from observers.

“But the horse was thriving physically and had put back 50 of the 70 pounds he had lost [when released from quarantine],” Haskin wrote.

In Canonero II’s career past performances in the Daily Racing Form’s Kentucky Derby edition, there was information missing for his final three races in Venezuela. There was the date of the race, the track, the distance, the final time, the track condition and Canonero II’s finish position. But that was all. Instead of listing the horses who finished first, second and third, it said: (Further information unavailable.)

Twenty clashed in the 1971 Kentucky Derby. Canonero II would have been a gigantic price on his own, but he was relegated to the mutuel field consisting of six horses. Horses chosen for the mutuel field are those regarded as having the least chance of winning. Because a win wager on the mutuel field meant having six chances to cash the ticket, the final odds were 8-1. Besides Canonero II, the horses in the mutuel field finished 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th.

After being 18th early, 20 lengths off the pace, Canonero II and jockey Gustavo Avila won the 97th running of the Kentucky Derby by 3 3/4 lengths while completing 1 1/4 miles in 2:03 1/5.

In the Preakness, Canonero II raced near or on the lead from the beginning and won by 1 1/2 lengths at 3-1. His final time of 1:54 flat for 1 3/16 miles broke the track record.

That put him in a position to go for a Triple Crown sweep in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. With a throng of 82,694 looking on, Canonero II finished fourth in the Belmont as the 7-10 favorite. Pass Catcher won. Jim French ran second, while Bold Reason finished third in the field of 13.

Actually, considering Canonero II’s physical condition, it’s remarkable he lost by only 4 1/2 lengths. He was sold after the race to King Ranch’s Robert J. Kleberg Jr. for seven figures.

“R.J. Kleberg Jr. [of Texas’ King Ranch, which bred and raced 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault] paid a reported $1 million for Canonero II, intrigued by his stud potential, after the colt lost the Belmont, owing a baffling hock ailment, a temperature, the loss of the cap off a tooth, a skin condition and could not be trained properly,” Charles Hatton wrote in the American Racing Manual.

(With safety in Thoroughbred racing significantly emphasized much more now than in 1971, it seems doubtful that Canonero would have been permitted to run in the Belmont these days considering the condition he was in, even with a possible Triple Crown sweep on the line.)

Haskin and others have listed the price that King Ranch paid for Canonero II as $1.5 million. Adjusting for inflation, that sum would be in the neighborhood of $10 million today.

After the Belmont, Canonero II did not race again at 3. He made eight starts the following year when trained by Hall of Famer Buddy Hirsch, winning just once. But his performance in that one 1972 victory was stellar. He won Belmont’s 1 1/8-mile Stymie Handicap by five lengths at odds of 5-1 on Sept. 20. The runner-up was the 7-10 favorite, a fellow Kentucky Derby winner, 3-year-old Riva Ridge.

Following Canonero II’s 1972 campaign, he was retired to stud at Gainesway Farm in Kentucky. But his record as a sire left much to be desired.

“Canonero never made it as a stallion and was sent back to Venezuela in February 1981 to stand at Haras Tamanaco,” Haskin wrote. “The only stakes horse he sired there was the Group II-placed El Tejano, who was ridden by none other than Avila.

“Even after all these years,” Haskin added, “Arias admits his eyes still tear up whenever he thinks back on Canonero’s magical journey…‘When we arrived in Kentucky, there was nothing but jokes. But Canonero was a battler and had such a big heart.’ ”

Canonero II died in Venezuela at the age of 13.

“On Nov. 11, 1981, that big heart gave out, as Canonero was found dead in his stall,” Haskin wrote. “By then, the magnificent decade of the seventies was history, with Secretariat, Forego, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar and Spectacular Bid all stamping their place in the record books,” Haskin wrote (and I would add Ruffian to that list). “But few remembered that it was Canonero who paved the way for these media stars.”

Me? I will never forget that spring day a half-century ago when I wondered who in the heck Canonero II was while listening to the call of the Kentucky Derby on my transistor radio in my dad’s car in the Yakima Meadows parking lot.


I was right to not make Monomoy Girl my top pick in last Saturday’s Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park last Saturday. But I picked the wrong horse to try and beat Monomoy Girl.

My top selection was Swiss Skydiver, who ended up third.

As expected, Letruska showed the way through the early furlongs in the 1 1/16-mile contest. To Letruska’s credit, after she was headed by Monomoy Girl in upper stretch, she dug deep and determinedly battled back to eke out a nose victory.

Letruska, off at odds of 3-1, posted a final time of 1:43.14. Monomoy Girl, the 7-10 favorite, had to settle for second in the field of six. Swiss Skydiver, off at odds of 9-5, ended up third, 6 1/2 lengths behind the top pair.

Winning trainer Fausto Gutierrez, a 52-year-old native of Mexico City, understandably was ecstatic.

In the Apple Blossom, Letruska managed to defeat a two-time Eclipse Award winner in Monomoy Girl (champion 3-year-old filly of 2018 and champion older dirt female of 2020) and another Eclipse Award winner in Swiss Skydiver (champion 3-year-old filly of 2020).

A 5-year-old Kentucky-bred daughter of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Letruska began her racing career by going six for six at Mexico City’s Hipodromo de las Americas. She’s seven for 12 in this country. The Apple Blossom was her first U.S. Grade I win.

Monomoy Girl, it should be noted, just barely lost despite being asked to pack top weight of 124 pounds. She conceded six pounds to Letruska last Saturday.

Still racing at age 6, Monomoy Girl now has a career record of 17-14-3-0. She has finished first in 15 of her 17 starts, having been disqualified to second for causing interference in the Grade I Cotillion at Parx Racing in 2018.


Not surprisingly, in the wake of her Apple Blossom triumph, Letruska moves all the way up to No. 6 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll after being ranked No. 22 last week.

Despite Monomoy Girl’s narrow Apple Blossom defeat, she is ranked No. 3 this week, as was the case last week.

Swiss Skydiver was No. 4 last week, but slips to No. 9 this week after finishing third in the Apple Blossom.

The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 358 Mystic Guide (29)
2. 330 Charlatan (8)
3. 253 Monomoy Girl (5)
4. 231 Knicks Go
5. 191 Colonel Liam
6. 183 Letruska
7. 99 Gamine
8. 85 Idol
9. 78 Swiss Skydiver
10. 49 C Z Rocket

The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 373 Essential Quality (34)
2. 286 Rock Your World (1)
3. 265 Known Agenda (1)
4. 253 Hot Rod Charlie (1)
5. 167 Highly Motivated
6. 138 Super Stock
7. 114 Medina Spirit
8. 109 Concert Tour
9. 75 Life Is Good (1)
10. 52 Midnight Bourbon


What are the eight categories in my Derby Strikes System? They are listed below:

1. THE GRADED STAKES CATEGORY. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition prior to March 31 rather than at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Always Dreaming in 2017 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 2 or early at 3 before March 31.)

2. THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES CATEGORY. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions since the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.)

3. THE EIGHTH POLE CATEGORY. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second at the eighth pole in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)

4. THE GAMENESS CATEGORY. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)

5. THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION CATEGORY. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.)

6. THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS CATEGORY. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Since Daily Racing Form began including blinkers in its past performances in 1987, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.)

7. THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD CATEGORY. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 and Justify in 2018. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 1 for 63 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to finish second or third in the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.)

8. THE NOT A GELDING CATEGORY. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)