PHOTO: Coady Photography
HOW HE GOT HERE
It’s hard to knock this undefeated horse as he’s aced every test that’s been in front him to date. Essential Quality was unveiled in a maiden special weight sprint race on Derby Day and he settled midpack early on while others sprinted clear. He was stuck in traffic for about 3/16 of a mile before breaking through and finishing full of run in the stretch to win by four lengths once he was clear. I believe he got quite the education from that start, setting up him to try graded stakes company.
Following his maiden score, he earned a trip to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. In that race, he broke sharper and was much closer to the early pace. He was kept in the clear, going a bit wide on the first turn, sitting just off the leader’s flank. He made his move on the turn and won by open lengths, beating three future graded stakes winners that day (Keepmeinmind, Super Stock, and King Fury).
In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he got a completely different trip, settling in midpack, well off the quick early tempo. When Saez asked him to go, he rolled up four wide and outfinished 94-1 longshot, Hot Rod Charlie, who got first run on him. Hot Rod Charlie’s performance that day was validated by his strong efforts in his subsequent races, as he became the fourth horse to have won a graded stakes race after losing to Essential Quality when he won the Louisiana Derby.
Essential Quality’s three-year-old debut was delayed slightly due to bad weather in Arkansas, but he handled the slop in the Southwest at Oaklawn with ease. He broke from the rail and angled to the outside on the first turn, racing about five lengths off the leaders. Again, when asked the question by Saez, he blew by the front runners and easily held off the close from Spielberg in that race.
His final prep for the Derby came in Blue Grass back at Keeneland and his trip was almost identical to the Breeders’ Futurity. He broke well and sat just off the lead set by Highly Motivated, while being floated a shade wide on the first turn. When it was time to go, this race turned into a dogfight, as Highly Motivated looked Essential Quality in the eye and battled with him throughout the length of the stretch, before yielding in the final strides to the 2 year old champion.
HOW HE FITS HERE
This is the kind of horse that checks all of the boxes when it comes to a Derby contender. He’s won in a variety of ways, winning near the front end and from off the pace. He’s won in the slop, he’s won when he’s found trouble, and he’s won while dueling with a fierce competitor in the stretch. His pedigree is a solid mix of speed and stamina as he’s sired by Tapit, out of an Elusive Quality mare, Delightful Quality, was a graded stakes-placed sprinter. Saez has ridden perfectly him in his last four starts making him a deserving favorite.
HOW IT FIGURES TO GO HERE
I see Essential Quality sitting off the early lead in the second flight of horses, near midpack for the first half of the race. In recent years, that has not been ideal because the horse who has finished first in the last seven Kentucky Derbies has been in the first flight of horses, either setting the pace or sitting right off it. However, on paper, there seems to be more early speed signed on for this Derby than we’ve seen lately.
One thing to keep an eye on is that Luis Saez has kept him outside of horses in all four races he’s ridden him, conceding some ground in exchange for running comfortably outside of horses. He’s proven to be adaptable to whatever pace scenario develops, so if they’re not flying early on, Saez might try to get him closer to the front end to ensure a better position. If they do go quick in the early stages, he has shown that he is able to rally from well off the pace.
I expect that he’ll be launching his bid for home near the quarter pole, making his move toward the lead. From there, it’s just a matter of whether or not he’s good enough to beat this group at the classic mile and a quarter distance.
He is an undefeated colt with two Grade 1 wins and a deserving Derby favorite. There are definitely some similarities between him and Nyquist coming into the Derby. Like Nyquist, he is coming into the Derby with an unblemished record, running several very good, but not spectacular races. It is important to note that there’s not a huge gap between him and some of the other major contenders that will be better prices.
If I’m trying to build a case against him, I think there are two ways that he could get beat. Saez has deliberately kept him on the outside of horses in all four races, so if he draws an inside post and gets stuck along the rail, that may be enough to make him uncomfortable enough to not give his best effort. If he draws a wider post, it will be interesting to see how ground Saez is comfortable giving up in order to keep him in the clear. If he concedes too much ground, he could open the door to a competitor who gets a better trip.
Anything can happen in a 20-horse race, however, he’s a prime contender to win the Derby. Barring any unforeseen red flags leading up to Derby Day, he’ll be one of the A horses for me. I would think somewhere around 7-2 would be fair market value for him.
Leave a Reply