3 Unheralded Kentucky Derby Contenders to Follow

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The 2020 Breeders' Cup is in the history books, which means it's time to turn our attention toward the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

We've already seen some promising Kentucky Derby contenders in action, including the undefeated Godolphin homebred Essential Quality, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and Breeders' Futurity (G1).

But the best 2-year-olds of any given year only occasionally achieve equal success as 3-year-olds. More often, the eventual standout sophomores compile unremarkable records as juveniles. Case in point? You have to go back to 2016 to find a Kentucky Derby winner (Nyquist) who achieved stakes win as a 2-year-old. Three of the last four Derby winners failed to win a single race at age two.

With this in mind, let's examine three unheralded 2-year-olds with the potential to make some noise in 2021:

Irish Unity

Although Irish Unity has yet to race, he warrants watching based on his pedigree and connections alone. Conditioned by six-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, Irish Unity was bred in Kentucky by Clearsky Farms, previously responsible for producing the Baffert-trained champions Arrogate and Abel Tasman.

As for Irish Unity's pedigree, it's nothing short of spectacular. A son of 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile (renowned as the sire of 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah), Irish Unity was produced by the Dixie Union mare Justwhistledixie, whose previous foals include...

  • Enforceable (by Tapit), winner of the 1 1/16-mile Lecomte (G3) and a participant in the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
  • Kingly (by Tapit), winner of the 1 1/16-mile Lo Jolla Handicap (G3) on turf and a capable stakes performer on dirt and synthetic.
  • Mohaymen (by Tapit), a four-time Grade 2 winner victorious in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth (G2) and fourth in the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
  • New Year's Day (by Street Cry), winner of the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1).

Irish Unity has already cranked out 18 workouts, primarily at Los Alamitos, while displaying flashes of speed. He's bred to relish racing two turns, so I'm excited to see what this promising colt can achieve once he reaches the races.


Although Olympiad was beaten in his Aug. 1 debut at Saratoga, finishing a distant third behind future Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) runner-up Reinvestment Risk, he showed meaningful improvement in his second start. Favored at 2-1 in a 7-furlong maiden sprint on Sept. 5 at Saratoga, Olympiad settled just off the lead through splits of :22.80 and :46.22, then pounced to the lead and drew off to win by 2 3/4 lengths.

Olympiad finished fast, sprinting the final 3 furlongs in :36.56, and his respectable final time of 1:22.78 translated to an encouraging 82 Beyer speed figure. He hasn't posted a workout since then, but assuming Olympiad returns to serious training this winter, his pedigree suggests he'll be a factor on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

After all, Olympiad's pedigree contains more two-turn stamina than first meets the eye. Although sire Speightstown was a champion sprinter, his best progeny have excelled running 1 1/4 miles, with Golden Ticket, Haynesfield, Force the Pass, Seek Again, and Competitionofideas all winning Grade 1 races over the Kentucky Derby distance.

Furthermore, Olympiad was produced by the graded stakes-placed turf router Tokyo Time, a daughter of stamina influence Medaglia d'Oro. In short, Olympiad figures to improve with distance and maturity, stamping him as an under-the-radar colt to follow this winter.


I wouldn't normally highlight a colt who lost his first three starts, but Parnelli seems like a worthy exception. Though he's yet to reach the winner's circle, the bay colt has nevertheless shown steady progress under the patient care of trainer John Shirreffs.

A stoutly-bred son of Quality Road out of a Bernardini mare, Parnelli sold for $500,000 as a yearling and debuted in a 5 1/2-furlong dash on Sept. 6 at Del Mar. After dueling for the lead through fast splits of :22.08 and :45.77, Parnelli weakened only slightly to finish second behind favored Superman Shaq.

For his second start, Parnelli stretched out to a mile at Santa Anita and locked horns with Hot Rod Charlie, future runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). After carving out modest splits of :24.12, :49.02, and 1:13.87, Parnelli unleashed a strong burst of acceleration in the homestretch, sprinting the penultimate furlong in :11.92 and the final eighth in about :12.25. This fast finish wasn't quite sufficient to hold off Hot Rod Charlie, who prevailed by a neck, but Parnelli did pull 16 1/2 lengths clear of the rest.

Parnelli third and most recent effort was virtually a carbon copy of his second run. After leading through fractions of :22.57, :47.27, and 1:12.06, Parnelli succumbed in the final strides to finish second by a neck against Spielberg, who had previously placed in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and American Pharoah (G1). The rest of the runners finished a minimum of 8 1/4 lengths behind.

Considering the quality of competition Parnelli has faced, the C R K Stable colorbearer has to be considered one of the most accomplished maidens in the country. A breakthrough victory should be just around the corner, with a foray on the Road to the Kentucky Derby looming as a likely winter goal.

Now it's your turn! Which up-and-coming 2-year-olds do you have your eye on?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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