Goal No. 1 for Essential Quality in 2021 was the Kentucky Derby. The reigning 2-year-old champ got to within a length of winner Medina Spirit at the top of the stretch Saturday but could not finish the job and settled for fourth.
Trainer Brad Cox and owner/breeder Godolphin recalibrated in the wake of Essential Quality’s first career loss. They will chart a course for the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 28 at Saratoga.
“That is the goal this summer is to get him to the Travers in the best shape we can,” Cox said Thursday on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference.
Essential Quality will not contest the Triple Crown series’ second leg May 15 in the Preakness Stakes. Neither will fellow 3-year-olds Caddo River and Mandaloun, who Cox said would also point to other races.
Cox said his hesitancy in running Kentucky Derby starters in the Preakness stems not from concerns of how they would perform in Baltimore but from concerns over how two long races in three weeks would affect the rest of their seasons.
The Preakness decision would be different if Cox was taking a Derby winner rather than just a Derby starter, he added.
“There are a lot of options moving forward for these 3-year-olds,” Cox said. “To have them at their best on Travers day, Haskell day, whatever race we decide to go in, it’s just in their best interest to give them more time between races.”
Cox stopped short of ruling out Essential Quality for the Belmont Stakes on June 5.
“I honestly have to see how things play out in the Preakness and who’s going to show up in the Belmont,” Cox said. “That’s what I would say for the time being.”
Cox said Essential Quality will likely run at least once before the Travers. He mentioned Saratoga’s $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) on July 31 as a possible prep for the Midsummer Derby.
In the meantime, Essential Quality will train at Cox’s Churchill Downs base through the end of June before relocating to Saratoga in July.
Cox said Thursday he was “very, very proud” of Essential Quality’s Kentucky Derby effort despite a less-than-ideal trip.
Essential Quality was hampered at the start of the Kentucky Derby when bumping Rock Your World. Jockey Luis Saez had to catch up from there to get into position going through the stretch the first time but was stuck five-wide through the first turn.
The 5-2 favorite raced five-wide again through the far turn. He sat outside of Medina Spirit, Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie going into the stretch and was in position to pounce but did not pass any of those three rivals.
“I felt he was the horse to beat,” Cox said. “I felt he was the best horse in the race going in. Winning the Kentucky Derby, you have to have racing luck. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had a lot of it.”
Essential Quality sports a 6: 5-0-0 career record more than $2.4 million in earnings. His record includes Keeneland scores in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and an Oaklawn Park win in the Southwest Stakes (G3).
“We obviously know he’s a great horse,” Cox said. “He’s going to get a couple more opportunities at Grade 1 races this year and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”