Essential Quality will carry a 5-for-5 record to Churchill Downs next month with a chance to stay unbeaten on racing’s biggest stage.
2020’s champion 2-year-old reigned supreme Saturday in the Grade 2, $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The Tapit colt outdueled game rival Highly Motivated, winning by a neck.
“I’m proud of what our colt was able to do,” trainer Brad Cox said. “It was a dogfight down the lane, and he was able to pull it out.”
Essential Quality covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.50 under jockey Luis Saez, returning $3 as the heavy 1-2 favorite.
The Godolphin homebred earned 100 Road to the Kentucky Derby points with the victory, further cementing his status as the one to beat come May 1. He closed last weekend as the 4-1 favorite in Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.
“Four weeks from today,” Cox said. “Hopefully we’re ready.”
Keeneland’s Blue Grass awarded Kentucky Derby points Saturday on a 100-40-20-10 basis. Finishing second through fourth and earning those points were Highly Motivated, Rombauer and Hidden Stash.
The nine-horse Blue Grass lacked true need-the-lead types, so it was a question of who would set the early pace. Highly Motivated, the 7-2 second choice in the betting, assumed that role, tracked closely by Essential Quality.
After fractions of 23.83, 48.21 and 1:12.08, Highly Motivated held a half-length lead over Essential Quality. Those two hit the stretch well clear of the field and ready for a battle – Essential Quality and Saez on the outside, Highly Motivated and jockey Javier Castellano at the rail.
“I was a little worried when we got to the stretch because, (Highly Motivated), he looked pretty good,” Saez said. “I know Essential Quality always tries but at that point we were a little worried. …
“He knew what the deal was, and finally, he went.”
Essential Quality dug in under a long drive and prevailed for the closest win of his career. The colt’s four previous starts had produced victories by margins of four, 3¼, ¾ and 4¼ lengths.
“This was his first real dogfight,” Godolphin USA president Jimmy Bell said. “He’d shown that versatility in his all of races doing different things – on the lead, off the pace. Today, he faced a horse that really wanted to win this race. Hat’s off to (Highly Motivated), for sure.
“They were determined, both of them, and he just digs down and finds a little bit more.”
Should Essential Quality improve to 6-for-6 four weeks from now at Churchill Downs, he would earn a first official Kentucky Derby triumph for Cox, Saez and Godolphin. He will also aim to become the first Blue Grass Stakes winner to take the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991.
Highly Motivated should be safely in the Kentucky Derby field after picking up 40 points for his runner-up effort Saturday. A Keeneland stakes winner at 2, the Klaravich Stables runner entered the day with 10 points after a third-place effort last month in Aqueduct’s Gotham (G3).
Like Cox, Highly Motivated trainer Chad Brown is another Eclipse Award winner who is pursuing a first Kentucky Derby score.
“He ran a huge race,” Castellano said. “I’m very satisfied the way he did it today. I got beat, finished second, but I’m so proud of my horse and the way he did it today. Easy fractions on the lead, he galloped along – that’s the first time he did two turns.
“We tested him a little bit to see how far he could go and he did it. He tried with one of the best horses in the country and I give all the credit to the winner.”
Third-place finisher Rombauer entered the day with 14 Kentucky Derby points from his performances in earlier preps. The Michael McCarthy trainee now has 34 and will be on the bubble to make the Churchill starting gates.
Rombauer sat in third place behind Essential Quality and Highly Motivated at each call. He finished 4¼ lengths clear of fourth-place Hidden Stash.
“The two horses in front of him are very nice and we ran a very good effort,” jockey Florent Geroux said.
Rounding out the order from fifth through ninth were Keepmeinmind, Sittin On Go, Hush of a Storm, Untreated and Leblon.