10 unheralded Kentucky Derby contenders to follow

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February 18th, 2021

Life Is Good, Essential Quality, Greatest Honour, Mandaloun — you’re probably already familiar with the early favorites for the 2021 Kentucky Derby (G1). Their eye-catching performances on the Road to the Kentucky Derby have been hard to miss.

But it’s not uncommon for the Kentucky Derby winner to burst into the spotlight only a month or two before the first Saturday in May. Two of the last four Derby winners didn’t contest a single stakes race before April.

With that in mind, let’s highlight 10 up-and-coming sophomores who have yet to earn points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. It may be only a matter of time before they rise to prominence in the spring.

Concert Tour

The son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense is undefeated in two starts under the care of trainer Bob Baffert and most recently rallied to a gritty victory in the seven-furlong San Vicente (G2). 

A stretch out around two turns should only help this stoutly bred colt, who is in the hunt to give Baffert a record-extending seventh Derby victory.


This Tom Amoss trainee rallied to win his debut sprinting at Fair Grounds, then finished second when he stretched out over 1 1/16 miles for an allowance.

The latter effort was eye-catching, since Defeater broke slowly and trailed early, before he gained 5 1/2 lengths in the final furlong to miss victory by just half a length.

The Louisiana Derby (G2) could be a logical target.

Dream Shake

Unheralded at 20-1 in his debut sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita, Dream Shake unleashed a powerful rally around the turn and drew clear to score by 4 3/4 lengths.

A son of Twirling Candy, produced by a Street Cry mare, Dream Shake is bred to run long and could target the San Felipe (G2) for his next start.

There’s no telling how talented he might be.

Fire At Will

Although he is best known for his triumph over a high-class international field in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), Fire At Will is also proven on dirt, as he won Saratoga’s With Anticipation S. over a sloppy track.

Although his pedigree (by Declaration of War, out of a Kitten’s Joy mare) suggests turf will be Fire At Will’s preferred surface, the dark bay colt will try his hand at the Derby trail when he starts in the Fountain of Youth (G2).

Freedom Fighter

This Baffert trainee showed no signs of rust when he returned from a six-month layoff in the San Vicente, where he carved out the pace and battled gamely to finish second by a half-length against Concert Tour.

Freedom Fighter’s pedigree is geared strongly toward speed, but he will get a chance to stretch out in the Gotham (G3).

Highly Motivated

Speaking of the Gotham, the Aqueduct fixture will mark the 2021 debut for Highly Motivated. A son of two-time leading sire Into Mischief, Highly Motivated defeated high-class competition in a maiden race and the Nyquist S. last fall, counting future stakes performers Known Agenda, Quick Tempo, and Awesome Gerry among his beaten rivals.

The Nyquist saw Highly Motivated romp by 4 1/4 lengths, in the track-record time of 1:14.99 for 6 1/2 furlongs, to earn a 102 Brisnet Speed rating.

But with a pedigree geared toward sprints, it remains to be seen how Highly Motivated will handle route racing.


A son of Pioneerof the Nile, out of the four-time graded stakes-winning sprinter Merry Meadow, Hozier failed to fire in his debut sprinting at Santa Anita, where he finished fourth, behind Concert Tour.

But Baffert had Hozier ready to roll when he stretched out over 1 1/16 miles, and the bay colt parlayed pace-tracking tactics into a comfortable, 1 3/4-length victory.

A jump into stakes company may be on the horizon.


The Godolphin homebred looked sensational in his debut dashing seven furlongs at Gulfstream, where he overcame a slow beginning to duel for the lead and ultimately dominated by 8 1/2 lengths under a hand ride.

Trainer Brendan Walsh doesn’t typically win with first-time starters, so don’t be surprised if this son of Medaglia d’Oro improves in his second run under colors.

The Fountain of Youth (G2) could be next on the agenda.

Soup and Sandwich

Soup and Sandwich was facing fellow Florida-breds when he cruised to victory on debut at Gulfstream, but the son of Into Mischief ran legitimately fast and powered to the finish line 7 1/4 lengths clear.

His final time of 1:16.82 for 6 1/2 furlongs was quick and produced a 98 Brisnet Speed rating, which suggests the Mark Casse trainee has the talent to hold his own against open company.


From the barn of trainer Steve Asmussen, Swiftsure is undefeated and unchallenged in two starts sprinting six furlongs. He most recently rolled to victory by 3 1/2 lengths in an Oaklawn Park allowance.

The son of Uncle Mo is blessed with ample tactical speed and has posted sharp Brisnet Speed ratings, which suggests he will be a frontrunning threat when he stretches out in distance.