5 Kentucky Derby Contenders You Should Follow

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

Every year, after the Breeders' Cup is over, I like to highlight a handful of promising two-year-olds with the potential to develop into Kentucky Derby (G1) and Triple Crown contenders.

Not every horse I feature turns into a stakes star, but some of them do. Last year's list included future Pacific Classic (G1) winner Arabian Knight, and others I've highlighted in the past include 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, 2016 Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) winner Drefong, and Grade 1 winners like Olympiad, Dortmund, Gift Box, Mor Spirit, and Roadster.

So without further ado, here are five talented juveniles I'm keeping an eye on:

Air of Defiance

Air of Defiance debuted in a deep six-furlong maiden special weight during the summer at Saratoga and ran well, rallying after an awkward start to finish second behind future Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Fierceness.

The Brad Cox trainee subsequently stretched out for a seven-furlong maiden special weight at Keeneland and ran impressively, dueling for the lead through fractions of :22.59 and :46.86 before taking over to dominate by six lengths. The bay colt blazed his final furlong in an excellent :11.98 to stop the timer in 1:23.81.

As a son of four-time Grade 1 winner Quality Road out of Summertime Oaks (G2) winner Faypien, by Ghostzapper, Air of Defiance has the pedigree to stretch out over at least 1 1/8 miles. In fact, his strong finish at Keeneland suggests he'll relish the opportunity.


You have to think Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen will win the Kentucky Derby (G1) one of these days, considering he's saddled three runners-up in the Run for the Roses. Perhaps Booth is the colt who will finally deliver victory on the first Saturday in May.

A son of Asmussen's champion sprinter Mitole, Booth debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight on Oct. 7 at Keeneland and delivered an impressive performance. Setting splits of :22.45 and :45.08 did nothing to tire Booth, who kicked away through a fifth furlong :11.97 before cruising to the finish line on top by 5 1/4 lengths in 1:10.23. His reward was a flashy 96 Beyer Speed Figure, tied for the third-highest number posted by any juvenile so far this year.

Granted, Booth's pedigree is geared toward speed, so stretching out over classic distances is a question mark. But it's too early to peg Mitole as a sire of sprinters just because he himself was best racing one mile or less, so until we see evidence that Booth prefers sprinting we have to count him as a possible Road to the Kentucky Derby contender.

Drum Roll Please

Drum Roll Please has made steady progress for trainer Brad Cox. Sixth in his debut sprinting at Saratoga, the son of Hard Spun improved significantly when stretching out for a one-mile maiden special weight over the same track, tracking the pace before finishing fast (final quarter-mile in approximately :24.40) to run second behind future Breeders' Futurity (G1) winner and Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) third-place finisher Locked. Drum Roll Please was beaten 7 1/4 lengths, but pulled 13 lengths clear of the third-place runner.

This effort stamped Drum Roll Please as the clear favorite to win a one-mile maiden special weight on Oct. 6 at Belmont at the Big A, and he didn't disappoint, sticking close to fast fractions of :22.79,  and :45.36 before taking over and edging clear to win by two lengths in 1:36.46. The Pennsylvania-bred colt has lots of upside and figures to join the stakes ranks in the near future.


A son of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist out of Tyburn Brook, by Preakness (G1) hero Bernardini, Knightsbridge is a half-brother to speedy Carter H. (G1) winner Speaker's Corner.

Speaker's Corner was a Godolphin homebred conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, and the same description applies to Knightsbridge. Only time will tell if Knightsbridge can achieve as much as Speaker's Corner, but the beautifully bred colt looked the part in a seven-furlong maiden special weight on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

Indeed, Knightsbridge was tons the best in his career debut, settling behind splits of :22.94 and :46.27 before seizing command in the homestretch and powering clear to crush his competition by 10 1/2 lengths. By running his final three furlongs in approximately :36.52, Knightsbridge reached the finish line in a snappy 1:22.96, earning a 90 Beyer Speed Figure. A bright future likely awaits.


Nysos isn't currently eligible for the Kentucky Derby since he's trained by Bob Baffert, who is suspended from racing at Churchill Downs Inc. tracks. But whether Nysos transfers to a different trainer this winter or sticks with Baffert and skips the Derby, he looks like a Grade 1 winner in the making.

Nysos is bred along the same lines as Knightsbridge, being a son of Nyquist out of the Bernardini mare Zetta Z. This Nyquist/Bernardini cross previously produced Summer (G1) winner Gretzky the Great.

Purchased for $550,000 as a two-year-old in training, Nysos debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight on Oct. 21 at Santa Anita and obliterated a promising field. Setting fractions of :21.62 and :44.19 proved to be a walk in the park for Nysos, who ran his final quarter-mile in :24.78 (quite strong given the intensity of the early pace) to win by 10 1/2 lengths in 1:08.97.

Nysos earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure and has every chance to improve while stretching out in distance, considering Nyquist's most accomplished progeny have primarily excelled racing one mile and farther. Don't be surprised if Nysos wins a graded stakes before the year is over.

Now it's your turn! Which up-and-coming juveniles have caught your eye?


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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.

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