Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Essential Quality made up for lost time in Saturday's Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park with an impressive victory in his 3-year-old debut. Last year's champion 2-year-old had to wait 17 extra days because of poor weather at Oaklawn to prove he had progressed and matured as a 3-year-old, but he returned better than ever.
The same cannot be said for Jackie's Warrior. The multiple Grade 1 winner now has shown in consecutive races that 1 1/16 miles is beyond his scope. As the distances continue to increase along the Derby Trail, this talented colt will likely cutback to sprint races.
Spielberg has proven time and time again that he is a notch below the cream of this crop, but he continues to pick up valuable points along the way and ran the best race of his career in the Southwest when finishing second after breaking slowly.
With many marquee names in Arkansas, most eyes were at Oaklawn last weekend, but there were plenty of other impressive 3-year-old performances that could prove to have a significant impact on the Kentucky Derby Trail. Below is a closer look at the five most impressive 3-year-old performances during the last week of February.
1. Essential Quality (1st, Southwest Stakes)
In a sport filled with people who ask, "what have you done for me lately?" many Derby rankings likely had runners with valuable 3-year-old experience ahead of Essential Quality heading into the Southwest. That seemed reasonable, considering that only two Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners have ever won the Kentucky Derby, and this colt was placed a bit behind the eight ball in terms of timing because of Oaklawn's cancellations. A wet track presented yet another obstacle for the Brad Cox trainee to overcome.
The son of Tapit responded to adversity the way great ones do, with a career high 96 Beyer Speed Figure. He did not need to improve much as a 3-year-old to be a major factor in the Derby, and he has certainly taken a step forward.
2. Greatest Honour (1st, Fountain of Youth Stakes)
This fellow son of Tapit continued his trend of visually impressive performances that do not shatter any stopwatches when winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park on Saturday. He received his second consecutive 89 Beyer Speed Figure, which places him below most of this year's top contenders.
The Shug McGaughey runner continues to improve, however, and he just keeps coming. His chances looked slim to none turning for home, but he ended up winning in hand while finding his best stride late. He might be the best bet of anyone in the field to handle the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby. He must prove he is fast enough to pass quality runners who do not have the distance limitations that Drain the Clock or Prime Factor have in the stretch.
3. Rock Your World (1st, Pasadena Stakes)
Meet the biggest threat to Bob Baffert's quest to win his 10th Santa Anita Derby. John Sadler's 3-year-old son of Candy Ride is a force to be reckoned with even though he has yet to try the dirt. He showed tremendous early speed when blitzing his rivals on debut and showed great acceleration after sitting off a rival in his first route try in the Pasadena Stakes.
Though both starts came on turf, this colt has hinted at ability from the start with big works on the dirt. It would be no surprise to see him transfer his form to the main track. He might be given that opportunity in the Santa Anita Derby (G1).
4. Collaborate (1st, Gulfstream Park Maiden)
It might be a little too late in the game for a recent maiden winner to make noise in the Kentucky Derby, but this colt was awfully impressive while drawing off to a 12 1/2-length victory for Saffie Joseph Jr. The 90 Beyer Speed Figure he earned was higher than Greatest Honour's 89, showing ability there. He is likely to run in the Florida Derby (G1) next, which is a big ask, but it will give the son of Into Mischief an opportunity to prove whether he is this good.
5. Known Agenda (1st, Gulfstream Park allowance)
Known Agenda showed his quality when defeating Greatest Honour in November. He subsequently disappointed in the Remsen (G2) and Sam F. Davis (G3), but he had excuses in both races. A drop in class and the addition of blinkers woke him up with a powerhouse victory over an overmatched field. The most suspenseful part of the race was the fight that ensued afterward between Irad Ortiz Jr. and Paco Lopez.
The margin of victory was impressive, but the 82 Beyer Speed Figure that he earned showed that further improvement is still needed to compete with the big boys.
Honorable Mention: Hush Of A Storm (1st, John Battaglia Memorial)