HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, April 4, 2021 – Absent a blowout victory by Concert Tour in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, Juvenile champion and undefeated Blue Grass Stakes winner Essential Quality will be the favorite to win Kentucky Derby 147.
Did Essential Quality’s struggle with Highly Motivated on Saturday sap the reserves he will need to win Thoroughbred racing’s One Shining Moment or will it fortify his mettle?
Essential Quality’s win is not unlike what occurred Saturday night in Indianapolis when the undefeated Bulldogs, tested for the first time this year, lived up to its mascot’s reputation and won a photo finish that will live in archives of sports forever.
How much emotional reserves will Gonzaga have left when it meets its strongest rival on Monday night? How will Essential Quality handle the toughest challenge he will face in his career?
Horses most often react badly to enervating efforts. And a ball notwithstanding, do college-hoops teams bounce?
In sports, emotions matter. Emotion brings energy to the dance. Forty-eight hours is a quick turnaround but Gonzaga proved it can handle adversity and pressure, just as Essential Quality did when he snatched victory from defeat’s jaws.
So, will Gonzaga become the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to make hoop history in two short days? Seattle Slew was the last undefeated juvenile champion to win a Kentucky Derby in 1977. Can Essential Quality do it 27 days from now? Trainer Brad Cox thinks it was just what his colt needed.
“He had to dig in today,” said a horseman trying to break the Louisville-bred-trainer curse. “It was probably what he needed. It was good for him to get a good test today. He did everything easy enough in his last race. I was proud of what he was able to overcome today. Big effort.”
Luis Saez, who executed the winner’s trip adroitly, added more perspective: ”No matter how fast or slow the pace, he always wants to be first at the wire.” Both comments ring true, especially the rider’s.
With two three-year-old prep races with an excellent juvenile foundation, any colt would need to run hard in start number two in preparation for the famed “mile-and-a-quarter without any water.”
And no matter what the pre-race indicators might be, no one knows about their horse for sure until the real running starts on the far turn in start number three.
The final time of 1:48.50 was very solid, after fractions of 23.83, 48.21, 1:12.81 and 1:35.97. The final furlong of 12.50 was good and the final three-eighths was a worthy 36.42 seconds. The winning margin was a neck over Highly Motivated and it was 5-½ lengths back to show finisher Rombauer.
There is some reason to believe that the close decision could be reversed when the top two finishers clash again. Highly Motivated broke cleanly in the Blue Grass but is not a fast horse away from the barrier. Still there are things to like:
Highly Motivated found himself on an unaccustomed early lead as was noted by his connections post-race. But of greater significance is that the Blue Grass was his two-turn debut and was holding off the champ until he appeared to jump starting gate tire tracks and switched over to his left lead. Experience and style matter.
Eight days ago, Todd Pletcher had no horses set for a Kentucky Derby run, now he has three, adding the Wood Memorial exacta of Bourbonic and Dynamic One to his Florida Derby upsetter, Known Agenda. He possibly has a fourth with Sainthood.
Both Pletcher horses indicated they have Derby style and own suitable pedigrees. And don’t disparage the slow time of 1:54.49 to vociferously.
Undefeated Gazelle-winning filly Search Results, who raced greenly and also finished on her left lead, won by open lengths in 1:54.14 after setting almost exact early splits of 24.88 and 50.09. Older Modernist needed 1:54.38 to win the G3 Excelsior.
Apparently doing all they can to make the surface as safe as possible, the drying out surface played day throughout the day after heavy rains on Thursday.
Runnerup Dynamic One raced wide but in the clear throughout, made two runs with three-eighths and one furlong remaining, and lost it in the very last jump. The winner saved ground throughout, but came from last, unusual given the dynamics.
Even after adjusting for the speed on the track, it will be a difficult read with respect to the Derby, May 1. How horses train up to the race might take on a little added significance this time around.
In terms of bringing a three year old up to a big race, the training achievement of the day belonged to John Sadler. Two grass preps, including a listed stakes around two turns, is just what the trainer ordered for his Candy Ride dark bay who rocked the Santa Anita’s Derby world.
Rock Your World was very good indeed, speeding away early in splits of 22.42 and 46.11 as his jockey, Umberto Rispoli, sat motionless, on his way to three-quarters in 1:10.64 and 1:36.27 for the mile.
The final time of 1:49.17 was solid as was a final sixteenth in 12.53, even if the final three furlongs were a pedestrian-like 38.53. In his defense, he was a tad late switching to his correct lead, then jumped back to his left lead, apparently out of inexperience.
But this colt is a runner. He took pressure throughout, separated himself bending into the far turn all on his own, and defeated a proven, experienced rival, even if it is a Bob Baffert second-stringer. Medina Spirit is a nice colt.
Speaking of the dual Triple Crown-winning trainer, a blowout victory in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby and he likely will saddle the favorite on May’s first Saturday.
Racing’s Final Four of the Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby sets up quite the championship run.