Division Rankings: Essential Quality has a racing rarity in sight

Division Rankings: Essential Quality has a racing rarity in sight
Photo: NYRA

One of my first impressions after the Belmont Stakes was that the Essential Quality I saw win a stirring renewal of the “test of the champion” was quite different from the Essential Quality I had seen in his previous two starts. It was clear to me that Essential Quality flourished since his Kentucky Derby run, maturing before our eyes, and he has taken his game to a new level.

Now he appears poised for a big second half of the season and could accomplish something that only two other horses have done in a season with no Triple Crown.

First, check out this week's edition of the Division Rankings, and as an added bonus, a video recap of my mid-season awards is below.

Older dirt males

1. Silver State. His Met Mile (G1) performance pushed him to the top here, and to be honest, it wasn't even really close. He has done far more than any other in this division so far in 2021. A winner of four stakes races already this year, he won the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) prior to his win in the Met last weekend. He likely will run next in the Whitney (G1) at Saratoga on Aug. 8.

2. Mystic Guide. With only one stakes win in the U.S. so far in 2021, he drops to No. 2. True, he did beat a weak Dubai World Cup field in March, but he hasn't run since. Scheduled to make his next start in the July 3 Suburban (G2) at Belmont, but even a win there won't be enough to take back the No. 1 spot he had owned for several weeks.

3. Maxfield. Rebounded nicely from his first loss, a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), with a win the Alysheba (G2) at Churchill Downs a few weeks back. The June 26 Stephen Foster (G2) will be next, and a win there likely will vault him past Mystic Guide.

4. By My Standards. Back in the top half of this division, this guy is as honest as they come. Runner-up to Silver State in the Met Mile, he is still searching for his first Grade 1 triumph. Won the Oaklawn Mile in his only other start this season. Will point toward the Whitney later this summer.

5. Country Grammer. The Hollywood Gold Cup winner has run two strong races with his rival, Royal Ship. Do not be surprised to see either this guy or Royal Ship at the top of this division by the end of the season.

Next 5: Royal Ship, Knicks Go, Idol, Happy Saver, Express Train.

Older dirt females

1. Letruska. She has beaten all comers in a very deep division, building up quite a lead after her second straight Grade 1 win in the recent Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park. Overall she is 3-for-4 in 2021, with her lone loss a close runner-up finish to Shedaresthedevil, which she avenged in her recent win. The Mexican star is now 14-for-18 in her career and points to the Personal Ensign (G1) at Saratoga on Aug. 28, with a possible start in the Shuvee (G3), a race she won last year, on July 25. Connections also will consider the Delaware Handicap (G2) on July 10 as a return possibility.

2. Shedaresthedevil. Was no match for Letruska in the Phipps and was even passed near the wire for the runner-up spot after chasing Letruska throughout. Previously this gal was much the best in the La Troienne Stakes (G1) at Churchill Downs, defeating a good field of older females.

3. Monomoy Girl. Was gallant to the finish in the Apple Blossom (G1) but came up a nose short. Clearly still on top of her game, something I wondered about heading into this last race. She was sent to the sidelines with muscle strains and hamstring soreness. Could be back later this summer but might drop from this spot in the coming weeks.

4. Swiss Skydiver. Scratched from the Ogden Phipps because of a fever, she should resurface at Saratoga. Her last start resulted in a seven-length defeat in the Apple Blossom when finishing third. Previous to that she was stellar in her Beholder Mile (G1) win at Santa Anita. Hasn't lost two races in a row in nearly 18 months.

5. As Time Goes By. Game winner of the Santa Maria (G2) last out, she previously routed the Santa Margarita (G2) field. Her only loss this year was a runner-up finish to Swiss Skydiver in the Beholder Mile. Will have home-court advantage come Breeders' Cup time. Will run next in the Clement Hirsch Stakes (G1) on Aug. 1 at Del Mar.

Next 5: Bonny South, Envoutante, Spice is Nice, Vault, Valiance.

3-year-old males

1. Essential Quality. His Belmont win was sensational and it separates him from several others. The Belmont was his first Grade 1 win of the season, but he has won two other graded stakes in 2021. Though there was no Triple Crown on the line in the Belmont, it proved to be one of the more exciting and satisfying Belmonts we have seen in the last 20 years. Will point for the Travers (G1) at Saratoga, with a possible prep in the Jim Dandy (G2). Could have a huge second half of season.

2. Hot Rod Charlie. Simply put, his Belmont runner-up finish was extraordinary. On the lead from the start, his 22.78 was the fastest opening quarter-mile ever recorded in the Belmont Stakes. His 46.49 opening half-mile was not only the second-fastest since Secretariat in 1973, but the second-fastest ever recorded in the Belmont Stakes. Showing heart in the stretch, he finally gave way in deep stretch, finishing a little over a length behind Essential Quality. The margin back to Rombauer in third place was more than 11 lengths. The show these top two put on will be remembered for a very long time. Connections might point to the Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar later this summer, with a possible race in the Haskell for his next start.

3. Medina Spirit. Didn't run poorly in his Preakness loss, a third-place finish behind the winner, Rombauer. Beaten a little over five lengths, the quick middle fractions that he was forced to set by Midnight Bourbon ended up costing them both the race as Rombauer pounced on both of them in the stretch. The Haskell (G1) at Monmouth is likely in the cards for the embattled Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, and a win there would restore some luster to his reputation.

4. Rombauer. The Preakness winner had no excuses in the Belmont when finishing a far back third. After edging Known Agenda for the show spot, he will regroup for this next start. May train up to the Travers, according to his connections.

5. Mandaloun. Got the job done in last week's Pegasus at Monmouth, but that type of effort will get him nowhere in next month's Haskell. Still hasn't been able to put two strong races together in a row. The Kentucky Derby runner-up will go next in the Haskell.

Next 5: Drain the Clock, Jackie's Warrior, Midnight Bourbon, Known Agenda, Highly Motivated.

3-year-old females

1. Malathaat. Her two Grade 1 wins gets her the nod here for the tops spot, as well as her close win over her rival. She sat out the Acorn (G1), which was won by Search Results. Should return for her first start since her Kentucky Oaks win in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) in late July and then the Alabama (G1) at Saratoga in August.

2. Search Results. Impressive winner of the recent Acorn, which was her first Grade 1 win. Suffered her only loss, to Malathaat, in the Kentucky Oaks in her prior start, but she was ultra game in defeat. She is another win away from moving to the top.

3. Clairiere. Came with her run in the Oaks and missed the show spot by just a nose. She too will have her chances to move up later this season.

4. Will's Secret. Back-to-back third-place finishes in Grade 1 events bump her up to this spot. She narrowly held off Clairiere for the show spot in the Kentucky Oaks in a nice effort.

5. Crazy Beautiful. Up-and-down filly can't seem to put together two winning races in a row, but she has won two graded stakes and was best last out in the Summertime Oaks (G2) at Santa Anita.

Next 5: Obligatory, Wholebodemeister, Soothsay, Pauline's Pearl, Dayoutoftheoffice.

Turf males

1. Domestic Spending. Didn't make his first start of 2021 until the start of May but has won two Grade 1 events in both of his starts. His facile Manhattan (G1) win at Belmont was superb, defeating several others ranked below. Domestic Spending’s season will follow the same path as Bricks and Mortar from two seasons ago, trainer Chad Brown said, with the race that used to be called the Arlington Million, the Mister D. Stakes (G1) on Aug. 14 at Arlington, likely to be the gelding’s next spot.

2. Colonel Liam. Running since December, this guy also has two Grade 1 wins on his resume, but he also sports a Grade 2 win in 2021. True, he did go down to defeat in the Manhattan, but it was his first loss of 2021. He has been running since January and has won three stakes. He will get a bit of a break before returning late this summer, and he deserves a mulligan for his off-the-board Manhattan.

3. Smooth Like Strait. After several close calls in Grade 1 races, he finally came through with his first win at the top level last time out in the Shoemaker Mile (G1) at Santa Anita, where he went wire to wire. Previous to this win, he set the pace in Colonel Liam's Turf Classic (G1) and was edged by a neck nearing the wire to finish third. Looks like a serious Breeders' Cup Mile contender down the road.

4. Channel Maker. He simply didn't run his best race in Dubai, where he finished eighth, beaten six lengths in the Sheema Classic (G1). Previously, he ran a gallant race to finish second in the Neom Turf Cup In Saudi Arabia. Will be back racing in New York this summer and will drop spots until then as others continue to run.

5. Raging Bull. Certainly an impressive win in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1), his first start of 2021. Remains in the top five for now, but I cannot help but remember last season when he was impressive in first start of 2020 in Santa Anita's Shoemaker Mile, also a Grade 1 win. He then went winless for the remainder of the season. In other words, I am skeptical he can string together wins.

Next 5: Hit the Road, Somelikeithotbrown, Gufo, Say the Word, Tribhuven.

Turf females

1. Mean Mary. Was the favorite in this division heading into 2021, and she has not disappointed. She held on to win in the New York (G2) beating several others ranked below. Previous to that she was best in the Gallorette Stakes (G3) at Pimlico. The United Nations (G1) on July 17 or the Beverly D (G1) on Aug. 14 will be her next start.

2. Juliet Foxtrot
. Was upset last weekend in the Mint Julep (G3) at Churchill Downs, losing by a half-length when runner-up to Mintd. Her previous start resulted in a Grade 1 win in the Jenny Wiley, and prior to that she had placed in four Grade 1 events. Her overall 2021 resume keeps her in this spot for now.

Harvey's Lil Goil. Checked in fifth in the New York (G2), but the soft turf might have had something to do with her surprisingly poor showing. Gets a mulligan and stays here for now. Previously, she won her only other start this season, the Beaugay (G3) at Belmont.

 After four straight runner-up finishes, she finally entered the winners circle with her strong win in the Distaff Turf Mile (G2) at Churchill Downs. The Turf Mile was her first start of 2021; she ended 2020 with a runner-up effort in the Matriarch (G1) at Santa Anita. Was scratched from the recent Just a Game (G1) at Belmont Park.

5. Charmaine's Mia. Very disappointing effort last out when off the board, beaten three lengths in the Gamely (G1) at Santa Anita. Previously, she won the Royal Heroine (G2) at Santa Anita. Her three graded stakes wins keep her here for now.

Next 5: Viadera, Thundering Nights, Mucho Unusual, Magic Attitude, Lemista.

Male sprinters

1. C Z Rocket. Has won both his sprint starts this year, defeating last years Eclipse winner, Whitmore, in the process. Simply put, he has beaten better competition than his next closest rival, Mischevious Alex, has. His connections tried to stretch him out to a mile in the Steve Sexton (G3) at Lone Star last time out, but he finished second. Will be back sprinting next time, where he has won seven of his last eight starts.

2. Mischevious Alex. Tried to stretch out to a mile in the Met Mile, but he flattened in the stretch to finish fourth. Won his first Grade 1 race a few weeks ago in the Carter (G1) at Aqueduct in impressive fashion, and previously he scored in the Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3), also impressively.

3. Firenze Fire. This guy is tough as nails, and last out he won the True North (G2) at Belmont for the second year in a row. Now 2-for-2 on the season, he will search for his first Grade 1 score since he was a 2-year-old later this summer.

4. Flagstaff. Tough old veteran fired again in the True North but was only second best. He is at the top of his game now as he scored his first Grade 1 win two starts ago in the Churchill Downs Stakes.

5. Whitmore. Another tough loss for this guy as he briefly had the lead late in the Churchill Downs Stakes but was edged at the wire, where he finished a close third in a blanket finish with four others. Previously he was twice runner-up to C Z Rocket at Oaklawn. As honest as they come, he still is at the top of his game.

Next 5: Cezanne, Wildman Jack, Brickyard Ride, Drain the Clock, Special Reserve.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine. 2-for-2 on the season, she hasn't been quite as dominant this year but has gotten the job done. Had to work for her win in the Derby City Distaff (G1) over Sconsin. With fans used to the dominant Gamine we saw in 2020, the 2021 version hasn't been quite the same.

2. Kimari. In her first graded stakes race on the dirt, she did not disappoint, edging away in the stretch for a 3/4-length win over Bell's the One in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland. Have to believe she would have been tough in the recent Derby City Distaff, but her connections opted not to enter. That might cost them come Eclipse voting time. She needs to run soon or will drop from this spot.

3. Sconsin. Showed in the Winning Colors (G3) that her close runner-up to Gamine in the Derby City Distaff was no fluke as she romped by three widening lengths in defeating Frank's Rockette, among others. She is in top form now and will be a major player moving forward in this division.

4. Bell's the One. Another somewhat disappointing effort when she was off the board in the Derby City, finishing fourth and beaten by more than five lengths. I will keep her here for now because I still believe she is among the best in this division. But one more subpar effort and she will drop.

5. Merneith. Won the Santa Monica (G2) last out and previously was third in the La Brea (G1) in December. Looks like she is finally realizing her potential for trainer Bob Baffert. Hasn't had a work for awhile and not expected back until the summer, so she will drop in the coming weeks.

Next 5: Estilo Talentoso, Edgeway, Frank's Rockette, Pacific Gale, Venetian Harbor.

Since the advent of the Eclipse Awards, only two champion 2-year-old males have returned at age 3 and won the Eclipse in a season with no Triple Crown. Lookin at Lucky pulled off this racing rarity in 2009-10 and Spectacular Bid in 1978-79.

The only others to win the Eclipse as a 2-year-old and again the next year are Triple Crown winners: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah.

Essential Quality is the consensus leader of his division, and as we stand today, it would be an upset if he doesn’t add his name to this unique list of equine stars.

He was so impressive in his Belmont win that I now would rate him a favorite in the Horse of the Year race based on what I expect to see in the upcoming months. Although the Belmont was only his first Grade 1 win of 2021, I get the sense that big things are ahead for the son of Tapit. 

Saratoga, and the mid-summer Derby, the Travers (G1) is the goal now. He could train up to that late August race, but trainer Brad Cox is more likely to enter his star pupil in the local prep held on the last day of July, the Jim Dandy Stakes.

If things go according to plan in his Saratoga engagements, he most assuredly will tackle older males in the fall. The 3-year-olds dominated the older males in last years Breeders’ Cup, but that is an exception to the rule. Only 10 3-year-olds have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the last 30 years, but when taking inventory of the older males, would any be favored over Essential Quality in a 10 furlong race today? The answer, for now, is no.

Essential Quality has certainly lived up to his name – he has been nearly perfect in his short seven-race career. No one knows what the future holds, but I get the sense that the best is yet to come for this budding superstar.

Meet Chip Gehrke

Chip Gehrke has been with Horse Racing Nation since 2015 and currently serves as a Featured Writer. Based outside of Chicago, Chip can be found in the press box many weekends during the Arlington Park meet. The On The Air With Dr. Derby name originates from his local sports radio show appearances as an on-air racing expert. Now also a weekly contributor on FOX Sports radio's "The Fast Track," Chip can be heard giving his thoughts on the racing world every weekend.

In 2017, Chip was chosen to be a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. As a part of the NTWAB, Chip became a voter for the year-end Eclipse Awards, something he takes very seriously. Some of Chip's favorite writings from the last couple of years is the best way to get to know him, along with following him on Twitter at @doctorderby.

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