Division Rankings: Essential Quality gets brave in Blue Grass

Division Rankings: Essential Quality gets brave in Blue Grass
Photo: Candice Chavez/Eclipse Sportswire

One of the last questions this writer had regarding Essential Quality was how he would handle looking another horse in the eye in a true stretch battle, as in Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland. Essential Quality gave an empathic answer with his gutsy win.

In solidifying his role as the favorite in the next month’s Kentucky Derby, there doesn’t appear to be much room for criticism. But before I dive into my thoughts on Essential Quality and his Blue Grass win, check out this week’s updated Division Rankings:

Older dirt males

1. Mystic Guide. Solid win in Dubai and is 2-for-2 on the season, but the Dubai World Cup field he defeated was nowhere near what we have come to expect from Dubai World Cup fields. Certainly has done enough to move into the top spot, though I am not sure how long he will stay here. Back in the states now and should return in the early summer.

2. Charlatan. Back working now after that Saudi Cup runner-up finish in February. We will see him on Kentucky Derby weekend in the Churchill Downs (G1) at seven furlongs. If all goes well there, his connections have stated their intention to target the Met Mile on Belmont Day in early June.

3. Knicks Go. He was simply outrun in the early part of the of the Saudi Cup, never getting the lead he needed to be able to dictate the pace of the race. I still believe he is the goods, and I hope he returns to the races again after a freshening.

4. Maxfield. Truth be told, he ran a fine race in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), considering the circumstances. First start beyond 8 1/2 furlongs, shipped across country and was beaten by just two lengths, finishing third to Idol and Express Train on their home track. He likely got a lot out of this race and should be better going forward.

5. Idol. Santa Anita Handicap winner wasn't shipped to Oaklawn for the Oaklawn Handicap (G2) as originally planned, and the 4-year-old colt will wait for the Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) on May 31. Idol would win a $1 million bonus if he can sweep the Hollywood Gold Cup and Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August, so don't look for him to leave his home base in 2021 as the Breeders' Cup also will be held at Del Mar this season.

Next 5: Express Train, Jesus' Team, By My Standards, Modernist, Silver State.

Older dirt females

1. Monomoy Girl. A showdown looms with Swiss Skydiver in the Apple Blossom (G1) at Oaklawn on April 17. In Monomoy Girl's first start this year, she got the job done with a two-length win in the Bayakoa (G3) at Oaklawn. She improved her remarkable record to 14 wins from 16 starts. Perhaps it was the mud, the layoff or a combination of both, but I felt like the Bayakoa was not her "A" race. Beware, this division is more open than many realize.

2. Swiss Skydiver. Her much anticipated 4-year-old debut was better than anyone could have envisioned. She shipped to California and was an easy winner in the Beholder Mile (G1) over a strong field. As I have written before, she is a true throwback, shipping all over the country for what seems like every big event in her division. A clash with Monomoy Girl is on the table for her next start, where she will ship to Oaklawn for the Apple Blossom.

3. Gamine. An easy win in her seasonal debut last week, the Las Flores (G3) at Santa Anita, should set her up nicely for her next start, the Derby City Distaff (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 1. It will be interesting to see who shows up to take her on – and if all goes well there, it will be even more interesting to see where she goes next. There is a certain Grade 1 one-turn mile at Belmont Park on Belmont Day that I know every fan would love to see her entered in, but will trainer Bob Baffert really run her against Charlatan? My guess is no.

4. Shedaresthedevil. The Kentucky Oaks winner from last season returned with a very impressive and gritty win in the Azeri (G2) at Oaklawn, where she held off the late run of the very good Letruska. She will skip the Apple Blossom and wait for the La Troienne (G1) at Churchill Downs on April 30.

5. Letruska. A fascinating story, this mare started her career in Mexico City and ran six times, all wins. Now 12 for 17 with three graded stakes wins in this country, she is in the best form of her career and a real player in this division. When was the last time we saw this from a horse who made its first six starts in Mexico City? She also will run in the Apple Blossom on April 17 – don't dismiss her chances.

Next 5:  As Time Goes By, Valiance, Vexatious, Dunbar Road, Sanenus.

3-year-old males

1. Essential Quality. Passed his Blue Grass test with flying colors. Looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby, that stretch dual should serve him well. Now 2-for2 on the season, he will take his unbeaten record to Louisville as the Kentucky Derby favorite, regardless of what Concert Tour does this weekend.

2. Concert Tour. Gets his final test in this weekend's Arkansas Derby (G1), but, like the Florida Derby a couple weeks back, this Arkansas Derby came up historically weak. So, will be really be tested? He can only run against who is lined up against him, so it's not his fault. If he is extended in this race, his Kentucky Derby stock may fall a bit. Still, he already has answered many questions that most others have not.

3. Rock Your World. If these rankings went 11 horses deep, he would have been No. 11 the last few weeks. After his impressive Santa Anita Derby (G1) win, he rockets up to this No. 3 spot. Is this too high for the son of Candy Ride? Perhaps. But his Santa Anita Derby win was no fluke, 2-for-2 prior, both wins on the grass, he set a legitimate pace and drew off in the stretch. He sports a great pedigree and should run all day, and he doesn't need the lead to fire his best. A very intriguing horse to look at come Derby Day.

4. Life Is Good. Joins a long list of horses from previous seasons that impressed on the Kentucky Derby trail only to be injured and forced to miss the Triple Crown events. Impressive winner of the San Felipe (G2) by eight lengths and unbeaten in three starts, he is now off the Kentucky Derby trail because of a hind-end injury. If we see him run again, it will not be until late summer or the fall at the earliest.

5. Hot Rod Charlie. Really handed it to the “house” horses at the Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Derby (G2), proving much the best in the 1 3/16-mile test. Ranked No. 6 before, he has shown me enough to be placed in the Top 5. Additionally, his win sends a strong message to the others: The California based 3-year-olds are heads and shoulders the best, outside of No. 1 Essential Quality.

Next 5: Medina Spirit, Greatest Honour, Known Agenda, Highly Motivated, Midnight Bourbon.

3-year-old females

1. Travel Column. Was much the best in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), beating the previous No. 1, Clairiere. These two have quite the rivalry going as they have faced one another in three straight races, trading wins and running one-two in all three. Next up? A date in the Kentucky Oaks on the last day of April.

2. Clairiere. Simply had too much to do in the stretch of the Fair Grounds Oaks, still ran on well to finish a clear second to Travel Column. The nine furlongs of the Kentucky Oaks might be in her favor the next time these two meet.

3. Malathaat. I was very impressed with her win in last week's Ashland (G1) at Keeneland, so much so that I contemplated moving her to No. 1. Although she won by only a head, she gave the impression that she was always going to get there,. And seeing how that was her first start this season, she should be much better for the Kentucky Oaks. Will relish going longer and might end up as the Oaks favorite.

4. Aunt Pearl. Finally back on the work tab, she is targeting a return on the April 30 Kentucky Oaks undercard in the Edgewood Stakes (G2). Her win last out in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf came at the expense of 13 others, five of whom were from overseas. Look for her to run overseas this season if she comes back at age 3 like she left off in her juvenile season.

5. Vequist. Will skip the Kentucky Oaks after an endoscopic examination revealed considerable congestion in her lungs following a dismal ninth-place finish in the Feb. 27 Davona Dale (G2) at Gulfstream Park, her lone start this season. I will keep her in the top five for now; she has earned one mulligan. Will point for the Acorn (G1) on Belmont Stakes day June 5.

Next 5:  Wholebodemeister, Crazy Beautiful, Pass the Champagne, Search Results, Pauline's Pearl.

Turf males

1. Colonel Liam. Certainly ran well in the recent Muniz Memorial Stakes (G2), where he scored a workmanlike win by two lengths. Moves to No. 1 after Channel Maker's loss, but I still question who he has beaten. The runner-up in the Muniz, Two Emmys, never had run in a stakes and was coming off of seven straight races in the optional claiming ranks.

2. 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. He drops to No. 2 and will head back to the states and be back racing in New York this summer.

3. Hit the Road. This guy was among the favorites in the 2019 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf but was off the board. Now better than ever at age 4, he is 2-for-2 this season after scoring the biggest win of his career in last weekend's Kilroe Mile (G1) at Santa Anita. Shipped to Keeneland, he will run in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1) on Friday.

4. Ivar. The winner of the Shadwell Turf Mile (G1) last season, he came running at the end of the Breeders' Cup Mile but was too late as he finished fourth, beaten less than two lengths. Back in training now, so look for him to return in the spring.

5. UnitedWon his 2021 debut with a solid win in the San Luis Rey (G3) at Santa Anita. Up next his connections will point the 6-year-old to the Charles Whittingham Stakes (G2) at 1 1/4 miles on May 29.

Next 5: Mo Forza, Zulu Alpha, Domestic Spending, Laccario, Churn N Burn.

Turf females

1. Mean Mary.
 Occupied this spot for a few weeks in 2020, she starts off 2021 at No. 1 based on her stellar campaign from last year. If she runs like she did in 2020, she is the favorite for the Eclipse in this division. On the work tab and nearing her 2021 debut.

Harvey's Lil Goil. She was third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf last season at age 3 and did win the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland last fall. She is back in 2021 and will be a player in this division. Has been off the board only once in nine starts.

Viadera. Winner of her last three starts, which included the Matriarch (G1) at Del Mar in late November. Still hasn't worked and likely will drop soon, but she is expected to be back racing later this season.

Jolie Olimpica. In need of Lasix, the 5-year-old Brazilian-bred mare will move from previous trainer Richard Mandella to new trainer Josie Carroll and be based at Woodbine. Faced the boys in the recent six-furlong San Simeon Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita and could muster up only a third-place finish, beaten a little over two lengths. Previously she returned from a six-month layoff to finish runner-up in the Las Cienegas (G3). Was one of the best in this division in 2020, would like to see her go longer. She is 5-for-9 on her career.

5. Charmaine's Mia. With her win in last weekend's Royal Heroine (G2) at Santa Anita, she ran her record to 3-for-3 on the year. All three of her wins have come in graded stakes, the most of any horse in her division thus far.

Next 5: Mucho Unusual, Micheline, Civil Union, Got Stormy, Going to Vegas.

Male sprinters

1. C Z Rocket. He beat the previous No. 1 ranked Whitmore in the Hot Springs Stakes last out to get to the top of the division, but for how long? Will face his old rival for a third straight time in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) at Oaklawn this weekend, and divisional leadership will again be on the line.

2. Whitmore. 2020 Sprint champ ran about as well as you can ask for in his 2021 debut against C Z Rocket, and the good news is that it appears he hasn't lost a step at age 8. Has won the Count Fleet Sprint a record three times, and that's where he runs next.

3. Mischevious Alex. Won his first Grade 1 race last weekend, the Carter, in impressive fashion. Previously he scored in the Grade 3 Gulfstream Park Sprint in impressive fashion. He is the real deal this year, and his speed figures are on par or better than the two ranked above him.

4. Wildman Jack. Was fourth last out in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), certainly not a bad effort. Previously, he easily won the Palos Verdes (G3). This resume is good enough to move him to No. 4 here for now, considering graded stakes sprint wins are few and far between this early in the season.

5. Brickyard Ride. His win in the San Carlos (G2) was scintillating, Now 2-for-2 on the season, look for him to reappear in another stakes in California.

Next 5: Firenze Fire, Extravagant Kid, Flagstaff, Chateau, Sleepy Eyes Todd.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine. Dominant in the Las Flores (G3) over six furlongs at Santa Anita for her 2021 debut, she will go next in the Derby City Distaff (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 1. She may be the best sprinter, male or female, in the country, but she will be tested in her next start.

2. Kimari. In her first graded stakes race on the dirt she didn't disappoint, edging away in the stretch for a 3/4 length win over Bell's the One in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland. Would love to see her in the Derby City Distaff next out against Gamine and others, but I doubt that happens.

3. Bell's the One. Somewhat of a disappointment when dead-heating for the runner-up spot in the Madison (G1), but it was her first start since last fall's Breeders' Cup. She will go next in what is shaping up as a stellar edition of the Derby City Distaff on Kentucky Derby weekend.

4. Frank's Rockette. Winner of three graded stakes last season, she started 2021 off with a win in the American Beauty Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Will run this weekend in the Carousel at Oaklawn.

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. In light training, she is not expected back until at least May.

Next 5: Venetian Harbor, Pacific Gale, Estilo Talentoso, Amy's Challenge, Wildwood's Beauty.

What's not to like with Essential Quality?

Trainer Brad Cox has won the Kentucky Oaks twice in the last three years, but has never had a runner in the Kentucky Derby. With his main stable headquartered at the Louisville oval, Essential Quality trains regularly there and his maiden victory came at Churchill in his career debut last year on Sept. 5, Kentucky Derby day. 

For Essential Quality fans who fear last weekend’s Blue Grass was too taxing for the son of Tapit for a final Derby tune-up, fear not. I believe his game win that saw him wear down a very good horse in Highly Motivated was exactly what he needed.

The Blue Grass lacked early front-runners, and Highly Motivated was able to take advantage by going to the lead and setting tepid fractions. After six furlongs split in a slow 1:12:08, it was clear that Highly Motivated was going to be a tough customer to get by.

But Essential Quality has shown the ability to adapt to whatever the pace is. Last fall in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile over the same Keeneland track, he was over nine lengths back at one point. In the Blue Grass, though, jockey Luis Saez and Essential Quality never let Highly Motivated get away by more than a length.

The most valuable information we gained from the Blue Grass came in the stretch. We got to see how Essential Quality would respond in stretch battle where he had to fight another quality horse head and head to the wire. He didn’t back down, and in the end he prevailed.

Make no mistake, this battle will serve him well heading to Louisville.

So what are Essential Quality’s strengths? We know he doesn’t need to carry his racetrack with him; he has won over three different race tracks, sloppy and fast. We know he can win at Churchill Downs, having won his maiden there. We know he can win from well off the pace or right near the lead. We know he has a pedigree to go the 10 furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. These are answers to tough questions that few, if any, of the others can answer prior to their Kentucky Derby run.

What about any weakness? I am hard pressed to find one right now. I wouldn’t call this a weakness but the only thing I can come up with is that speed-figure-wise, he doesn’t tower over the expected Kentucky Derby field. That is about all I can see that could be labeled a weakness.

With the Blue Grass win, Essential Quality improved 5-for-5 lifetime, and he could become the first unbeaten Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Eclipse winner to win the Kentucky Derby since Nyquist in 2016.

Perhaps this year’s Derby riddle is easy to solve after all. Essential Quality has been No. 1 from the start, why should we expect that to change come May 1?

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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