LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The bourbon is flowing again, flowery hats and people are there and 19 horses are ready to lead the most chaotic race of their lives. After a pandemic, the Kentucky Derby is back with many traditions intact.

America’s longest continuously held sporting event returns to its traditional place on the calendar – the first Saturday in May. The 147th edition appears less than eight months after it was held without viewers last September due to COVID-19. This makes it the shortest time between derbies in history.

“I was hoping to be able to enjoy my Derby win a little longer,” joked coach Bob Baffert, who finished sixth with Authentic last year.

The eerie silence that settled over Churchill Downs last year when no spectators were admitted is being replaced by around 45,000 visitors – around 100,000 fewer than usual. Masks are required. Food and drinks are all-inclusive to reduce long queues and separate payments for each transaction.

With the derby back to its usual day, the upside down Triple Crown was put back in order last year. Preakness will follow on May 15th and Belmont, which started the series a year ago, will close it on June 5th.

Essential Quality is the early 2-1 favorite on Saturday and has a good reputation. The eye-catching gray colt was last year’s 2-year-old champion. He comes into play unbeaten in five career starts. The last undefeated colt to win the derby was Justify in 2018, and he went on to sweep the Triple Crown.

Essential Quality is owned and bred by Godolphin Racing, the stable of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, who is 0-11 in his decades-long quest for America’s greatest race. An Essential Quality win would entail an additional scrutiny of human rights issues involving the Sheikh, who is not one of the few fans in attendance.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission received a complaint this week from a group of human rights lawyers and students at the University of Louisville who wanted to petition for Sheikh Mohammed to be banned from the derby for alleged human rights abuses. A judge in England ruled that he orchestrated the kidnappings of two of his adult daughters.

Essential Quality jockey Luis Saez is aiming for his first derby win after being the first to cross the finish line on board Maximum Security in 2019 to disqualify his colt.

“Essential Quality is a well-deserved favorite,” said coach Todd Pletcher, “but I think it’s a wide open race.”

Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner, saddles four starters, led by 6-1 rounds of Known Agenda. His others are listed in two digits: 20-1 Dynamic One, 30-1 Bourbonic, and 50-1 Sainthood.

The biggest question for these 3 year olds is if they can complete the 1 1/4 miles while jostled on a 19 field. King Fury sparked a fever on Friday and coach Ken McPeek said he would be scratched. As a result, the four horses move outside the stallion’s 16 post to one point in the starting gate. You’ll be walking in front of the crowd for the first time since the pandemic as the tracks were forced to get closer to the public last year.

Besides Essential Quality, the other undefeated horses on the field are 5-1 Rock Your World and 50-1 Helium, both 3-0. Rock Your World won its first two starts on grass before moving to Dirt and winning the Santa Anita Derby.

Two-time derby winner Doug O’Neill goes 8-1 against Hot Rod Charlie, a colt owned by his nephew Patrick O’Neill and four of his former Brown University soccer teammates. “It’s going to be the race of a lifetime for these guys,” said Doug O’Neill.

Despite its tradition, this year’s derby is one of the first:

– It’s the first to be done without Lasix. Previously allowed on race day, the anti-bleeding drug has been banned from Churchill Downs and the other Triple Crown courses.

– Brad Cox tries to become the first Louisville-born coach to win. In addition to saddling Essential Quality, he shot Mandaloun 15: 1, whose owner of Juddmonte Farms, the Saudi Prince Khalid bin Abdullah, died in January. Cox says victory would make him “a pretty good” threat! “Question no one will answer.”

– Kendrick Carmouche aboard Bourbonic could become the first black jockey to win in 119 years. The derby was won by black drivers in 15 of its first 28 editions.

– Vicki Oliver saddles 50-1 against Hidden Stash to become the first coach to win. Shelley Riley finished second with Casual Lies in 1992.

– Baffert, who took the most Derby wins by six with Ben Jones, scores 15-1 with Medina Spirit after his other hopefuls derailed on the Derby trail. “I’ll get in there, but I need luck,” he said.

– Mike Smith, who was on board Midnight Bourbon 20-1, would be the oldest jockey to win at 55.

Saturday’s forecast predicts sunshine, low humidity and a maximum of 23 degrees Celsius.

The post time is 6:57 p.m. EDT.

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