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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


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.

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12 Responses

  1. I like your clever comparison Gonzaga, Derby and Bounce. I’m a big believer in bounce theory. It’s hard to go unbeaten in any sport. Zags are one game away from doing exactly that. It took the Zags OT to beat a very scrappy UCLA squad, who as they say was playing last night with house money. No one expected them to make it to Final Four. As we know, the longer you stay in a game as the huge under dog the more pressure it puts on the FAV.

    Along the way to a championship you expect to play at least one tough game. If you come out on top, I feel like it hardened you metal. So I expect the Zags tomorrow night to play more defense. Enroute to their first National Championship.

    Now back to the four leg bounce. The Blue Grass was the best and most important prep race yesterday. Why is that you ask. Because Essential Quality beat a very determined Highly Motivated and in 4 weeks he will be a short price Derby favorite. I do think the Blue Grass was a huge effort for Essential Quality. I would not be surprised to see a bounce on Derby day from him. Additionally, to these blue eyes, I question his ability to get 10 furlongs.

    Which brings me to my early Derby choices who are Known Agenda and Greatest Honour. I’m pretty sure both horses will get the Derby distance and the race spacing assures they will both be firing their best shots.

    1. Cannot disagree with any of your observations. I’m on record as liking both horses going forward but am anxious to see three things: Concert Tour one more time; workouts, mostly at CD but elsewhere too, leading up to the race, and the post draw. Normally, 10 furlongs is enough to overcome tough luck if you’re horse is the best on the day. But somehow I think that the trip will have much to say about the outcome of Derby 147.

  2. Tony, I like your call on K.A. and G.H. on both getting the Derby distance.

    But then again, there’s the curmudgeon back spewing his derogatory dirt at John, and words of caution on Stakes races. I guess I’ll have to see how the bankroll holds up. Sure wish the Derby was an undercard event, and we would not be targeted so for enjoying prime time stakes events. Some of us just enjoy the diversity of wagering on all types of races.

    My take is others should worry about their own bankrolls, and we can all watch our own. I could go around another thirty years worth of two turn stakes and never get caught for all the fun I have had with racing. I think I can handle a twenty or so on the Derby is all. Go get ’em Shug. More than likely, I’ll land on one of your two mentioned Tony. Will read more on the pedigree lines.

    Enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing.

    P.S. The guy doing the most complaining of late is the same guy who has been selling the same old oats that have already been through the same old non-stakes runners for years. All the same old oats to me, stakes or claimers. If already through the horse, buyer beware. If it smells like it, it probably is.

    1. And then you have Gamine paying $2.10 yesterday at The Great Race Place. This is not a mid-Atlantic track that WMC prefers so there’s little chance he was involved with this monster filly. The exacta came back $2.80 with the 10-1 second choice. And to add insult to injury the winning trainer is: BB (Bob Bafert). This is the kind of scenario WMC rails against but these top tier horses have to run somewhere. Glad to see Calumet score with late running Bourbonic in Wood. This is the kind of horse that can hit the board in KY Derby. Dismissed at 72-1 and able to come running late off of wicked slow fractions. Watch for in Derby.

  3. McD,

    When I saw there was a post from WMC under the Saturday analysis piece, I made it a point not to read it nor respond to it. You just confirmed my suspicions.

    As for the Derby, my response to Tony C. are my current thoughts. This Derby is a fascinating study to me and, as always, the right price shot or two, strategically placed, can make for a nice score.

    And couldn’t we all use one of those…

    1. Thanks Tony, the bounce was a no-brainer. But as Mr. Lawrence always talks about, “The Clincher”. And that was a four guard set and we saw what two good guards and pressure defense almost did Saturday night. Baylor was like UCLA on steroids.

  4. Having finished ‘capping a few races around the country, I decided to amuse myself by looking at the eponymous ‘best racing’ (the stake races, Alice) held yesterday Oaklawn and Keenland: The Carousel Stake, purse $250,000. The favorites ran first and second and the owner of the blue blood that finished last received a check for $5,000 though beaten by 19 lengths. The Oaklawn Mile, purse $400,000. The favorites ran first and second and the owner of the horse that finished last, beaten by 17 lengths was paid $8,000. The Count Fleet, purse $500,000. The favorites ran first and second and the blue blood that stumbled home dead last earned the owner $10,000. The Arkansas Derby, purse $1,000,000. Of course, it was now time for the ‘bomb’ trained by, of all people, Asmussen! It paid $26.40 followed by another long shot who finished second. And, the blue blood who finished last earned $20,000 for the owner — see what a million dollar purse can create.

    At Keeneland the Stonestreet Stake had a purse of $200,000 and a ‘bomb’ for a winner. Paid $38.40. The owner of the blue blood who finished last, beaten 42 lengths, and trained by Baffert, received a check for $4,000. And the Coolmore Stake ran to form with the favorites finishing first an second. The owner of the last placed horse, naturally, received a check in the amount of $6,000 though beaten by 9 lengths.

    Money, money everywhere distributed to owners, trainers, and jockeys. How much went to the blokes who bet on these races? Yup, stake races, the very best racing available to bettors. BTW, the largest payoff for a win bet when the favorite won was $6.80; that and another fin might get you a beer at the track, err warm beer.

  5. Winners, winners everywhere…? Only needed one, you might have missed the value choice in the Arkansas Derby: $26.60 made my day, and to think I was looking for 5-1 or 6-1. Sometimes you get lucky…

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