Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox knows it is not just an ordinary $1.5 million Grade 1 race next Saturday that will test Essential Quality.
“We wanted to keep him honest,” he said at dawn Saturday after Essential Quality had a final breeze before assuming the favorite’s mantle for the Belmont Stakes. “We definitely got a good work under him.”
On the Churchill Downs main track that was tightened by off-and-on showers in the past day, Essential Quality breezed five furlongs in company with Bonny South. Churchill Downs reported a time of 59.4 seconds with a gallop out to 1:12.8 for six furlongs.
Essential Quality outside Bonny South: 12.1 23.4 46.3 59.2/112.4. pic.twitter.com/u8njMTwPmu— Kevin Kerstein (@HorseRacingKK) May 29, 2021
“We had him 59-and-2 from the half-mile pole to the seven-eighths,” Cox said. “They both worked heads-up. Real happy with the move. He’s doing fantastic.”
Best priced at 3-1 in international betting for the Belmont, Essential Quality will be out to rebound from a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. It was the only loss on his résumé that includes four graded-stakes victories.
Hoping to get Essential Quality his first Grade 1 win since turning 3, Cox thought it was important to have the colt work with a filly that has two graded-stakes triumphs of her own.
“His first work after the Derby he went a half in like 50,” Cox said. “He’ll work easily enough by himself, but we didn’t want to think that he didn’t get accomplished what we were looking for. We were looking for something in the neighborhood of five-eighths in a minute. He traveled really well.”
If he were to give Cox his first classic victory, Essential Quality would become the fourth Tapit colt to win in the last seven runnings of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles. Cox admitted he might have had that in mind when he predicted last year that Godolphin might have provided him with the 2021 Belmont Stakes winner.
“I probably said that about some other horses as well,” Cox said with a laugh. “It was at Keeneland last summer. He worked three-eighths and just stayed on so well. I was mostly joking, but he’s a Tapit, and obviously Tapit has had a lot of success in the Belmont. He’s always shown a lot of stamina. Obviously if the horse is going to get a mile-and-a-half they’ve got to have stamina.”
Cox said everything is a go for Essential Quality to be vanned from Louisville to Long Island on Monday afternoon with stablemates who are also expected in Grade 1 races next Saturday at Belmont Park. They include Knicks Go (Met Mile), Caddo River (Woody Stephens), Travel Column (Acorn) and Shedaresthedevil (Ogden Phipps).
They do not include another Cox worker who may yet be declared the Kentucky Derby winner if Medina Spirit ends up with a medication disqualification. Mandaloun breezed five furlongs Saturday in 1:00.2 in preparation for the 1 1/16-mile Pegasus Stakes on June 13 at Monmouth Park, where he will be a familiar figure if Cox has his way.
“We feel like that’s the best plan for getting him to the Haskell,” Cox said, looking down the road to the Grade 1 $1 million race July 17. “He was by himself today. We had him 1:12-and-2 (for six furlongs). We’re pleased with how he’s doing.”
Jockey Florent Géroux worked Mandaloun on Saturday morning, but he was not sure if he would ride in the Pegasus. He said he was still wrestling with whether he would join other jockeys who are staying away from New Jersey because of the virtual ban there on striking horses with crops.
“That’s not a concern of mine at all,” Cox said. “My concern is having the horse happy, healthy and prepared to run.”