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Unbeaten Kentucky Derby Runners: Are They Worth A Bet?

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We all love an unbeaten Kentucky Derby runner; there is a sense of excitement when a horse has never suffered a defeat.

There have been many undefeated thoroughbreds attempting to win the first leg of the Triple Crown. Most have failed, but there have been eight unbeaten winners of the Kentucky Derby.

Aaron Civale of the Cleveland Indians delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers during a game
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Technically, nine unbeaten runners crossed the line, but we’re not counting Maximum Security’s win and subsequent disqualification in 2019.

The 2021 Kentucky Derby features three unbeaten runners, so we look at how they match up and whether backing an unbeaten runner is the way to go.

The Kentucky Derby will be televised by NBC. It will air from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and from 2:30 to 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

Coverage is also available to stream live on NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Recent Unbeaten Winners

Eight runners have remained unbeaten following the Kentucky Derby. The latest was Justify in 2018, who scored by 2½ lengths for trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith.

Despite being undefeated after three starts, including the Santa Anita Derby, bettors got value odds for Justify. The online racebook offered +300 and he duly obliged by scoring a comfortable win.

Magnum Moon was the only other unbeaten runner in the field. The Todd Pletcher-trained runner didn’t race as a juvenile but won on debut before subsequently winning the Rebel Stakes.

He then won the Arkansas Derby by a big margin before entering the Derby. Magnum Moon was one of the favorites at +500, but he finished 49½ lengths behind Justify.

Nyquist achieved the unbeaten feat in 2016 for Doug O’Neill. The champion son of Uncle Mo entered the 2016 Kentucky Derby with seven consecutive wins, including the Florida Derby and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

All eyes were on the +130 favorite and he delivered for favorite bettors. It would be the final race won by Nyquist, who would suffer defeats in his last three starts before embarking on a stud career.

Not since Big Brown in 2008 had an unbeaten horse won the Kentucky Derby. From 2009-16, four horses had their chance. Gemologist won five straight before finishing 16th in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

He was followed by Verrazano in 2013, who had won four races before suffering his first defeat in the Derby. The Pletcher-trained runner finished 14th, which continued Pletcher’s long tradition of undefeated Derby disappointments.

2015 runner Dortmund was a son of 2008 winner Big Brown, but he couldn’t achieve the same feat as his father. Dortmund had won six races but had to settle for third behind American Pharoah, who would later win the Triple Crown.

Materiality was another 2015 entrant, who ran sixth. You can add him to the list of Pletcher-trained unbeaten Derby failures.

2021 Kentucky Derby Undefeated Runners

Three unbeaten runners will take their place in the 2021 field on May 1.

Two of them have been heavily backed in Kentucky Derby betting markets, including Essential Quality (post 14, 2-1 morning line) and Rock Your World (15, 5-1). The third runner is Helium (12, 50-1), who is considered an outside chance.

Essential Quality:

Brad Cox lines up the five-time winner, who has been best-backed to win at Churchill Downs.

The son of Tapit looked good in his work on Saturday morning with Edvin Vegas in the saddle. Trainer Cox was happy with the outing and advised Vegas not to go too hard.

“We keep radios on all of our riders so that way we can stay in contact throughout the work,” Cox told Paulick Report. “Galloping out around the turn, I got on the radio to Edvin and told him not to let him go too strongly.

“Spa City is a horse we used as a workmate for Essential Quality the last three or four works. He’s a good matchup for him because he’s a good work horse.”

Essential Quality isn’t the strongest unbeaten runner we’ve seen, but he demands respect. He edged out Highly Motivated to win the Blue Grass Stakes in his final preparation, so it was a good result.

Rock Your World:

There is a touch of X-factor about Rock Your World. He is unbeaten after three starts, including the Santa Anita Derby, which is often a good form guide.

Winning the Kentucky Derby at just its fourth start isn’t easy to do, but the John Sadler-trained runner could be up for the challenge.

He is not only bred to see out the distance, but jockey Joel Rosario has experience winning the Run for the Roses. Rock Your World was put through his paces in a recent bit of work, completing a drill in 59.20.

“Looks like he traveled well and we took him out for a little light jog around the track today just to get him acclimatized a little bit. So far we’re looking good,” trainer John Sadler told Bloodhorse.com.

“He’s got a high cruising speed and he can carry it a classic distance.”

Rock Your World is currently on the second line of betting at +500.


The Mark Casse-trained runner doesn’t have the same appeal as Essential Quality or Rock Your World, but he is an intriguing type.

He won the Tampa Bay Derby by three-quarters of a length and although his speed figures weren’t overly impressive, Helium could take the air out of this field.

It looks as though he can endure a solid tempo and battle strongly to the line. That is a good asset to have in the Kentucky Derby and he hasn’t been completely let go by bookmakers.

Helium is currently paying 50-1 on the morning line. We wouldn’t be ruling him out completely, especially with jockey Julien Leparoux in the saddle.

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