2021 Kentucky Derby Picks: How To Find The Winner

Written By Stephen Andress | Last Updated
Kentucky Derby picks

The Kentucky Derby is the most difficult horse race in the United States to handicap. A 20-horse field seemingly creates an infinite number of scenarios for how the race will play out each year. To help with your Kentucky Derby picks, we’ve devised a process of elimination system.

Using tried and true run for the roses theories, we will systematically start eliminating horses from contention in hopes of landing on this winning Derby ticket.

Let’s begin.

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Final Fractions Theory

Pioneered by longtime turf writer, publicist and overall fantastic human being Jennie Rees, this theory looks at how fast horses ran in their final furlong and final three furlongs in their last race before the Kentucky Derby. The idea is if they are not fast enough to finish a 1 1/8-mile race, they likely won’t be fast enough running 1 1/4 miles for the first time in the Kentucky Derby.

Jennie’s theory is the horse must have run 13.0 seconds or faster in their final furlong or 38.0 seconds or faster in their final three furlongs in their last Derby prep race.

The theory has held up pretty well over the years. Since 1990, 27 of last 31 Derby winners have met one of these final fractions criteria. Over that same span, 23 of 31 winners met both.

Let’s eliminate the horses that meet neither in this year’s crop of three-year-olds.


Super Stock, Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, Dynamic One, Keepmeinmind, Brooklyn Strong


Beyer Speed Figures

Beyer speed figures, developed by Andrew Beyer in the 1970s, are one of the most trusted metrics to compare horses across races and tracks. For more on this, check out our Kentucky Derby Power Rankings and Strategy article.

Since 1992, 26 of 29 Derby winners have record a Beyer of 95 or more in at least one of their career races. The most recent exception was Country House in 2019, when Maximum Security was first across the finish line but was disqualified. Maximum Security would have met this criteria to make it 27 of the last 29.

Time the draw a line through a few more horses that have never reached a 95 Beyer in this Kentucky Derby field, including a few coming off a win in their final prep race.


Like The King, Known Agenda, Bourbonic, Helium, Soup and Sandwich, Sainthood, Hidden Stash


Brisnet Speed Rating

At this point, we’ve already eliminated 13 horses, but we have a handful more to go to find our potential winners. VSiN’s Ron Flatter notes a history with Brisnet speed ratings and Derby winners.

Since 2000, 18 of 21 Derby winners have had a race with a 100+ Brisnet before the first Saturday in May. Again, one of those was Country House, who didn’t actually reach the wire first.

Two more get sent to the stables here to reach our final four.


Midnight Bourbon, O Besos


Top Kentucky Derby picks to win

Final 1FFinal 3FBest BeyerBest Brisnet
Essential Quality12.036.397102
Hot Rod Charlie12.537.599100
Rock Your World12.938.5100102
Highly Motivated12.536.797102

The best value proposition here may be to just wait until shortly before post time and see which of these four horses presents the longest odds. A case can be made for each to win.

Of the four, Rock Your World is the only one that did not meet the final three furlong criteria. He posted bullet fractions on the front end of the Santa Anita Derby and still kicked towards home for a 4 1/4-length win. If he’s used up front like that again, it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll survive the extra distance in the Derby. He’s a strong candidate to be on the lead early. It’s also reasonable to wonder if he’ll separate from the pack late if it is a mild pace. He drew post 15, and his jockey may have to use some horse early before the first turn to avoid traffic. Rock Your World also did not race at two-years-old. Only two horses have won the Derby without that early experience.

Essential Quality is the rightful favorite, especially with significantly better final furlong splits than the other contenders. However, Highly Motivated only lost by a neck to the unbeaten champion. If Essential Quality has a tough trip in a 20-horse field, that could be enough for Highly Motivated to get some revenge for the roses. 2-1 on the morning line is also an extremely short price in a 20-horse race.

Lastly, Hot Rod Charlie really impressed in the Louisiana Derby to win by two lengths. By my eye, he was also mostly hand-ridden down the stretch. His jockey only went to the whip in the stretch once or twice. That indicates that he might have more left for the extra distance. He is also the most experienced of this group. The Kentucky Derby will be his eighth career race. With the Kentucky Derby being his third race of a layoff, that’s my pick to win the roses.

TheLines.com 2021 Kentucky Derby Betting Guide

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Bonus Coverage: Why fading Todd Pletcher has been profitable in the Kentucky Derby