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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Peter Applebee — The Triple Crown races are now in the rear view mirror.  Half the racing calendar year is over.  Questions have been answered, but many remain.

Who is the leader of the three year old division at the mid-way mark in 2021? That’s an easy one at the moment; it’s Belmont Stakes hero Essential Quality. He is a defending champion in his division. At present, no one has stolen that title

But where do we go from here, what about the remainder of the year?

Over the first six months of 2021, there were arguably five different horses that could lay claim to leader of the three year old male division leader at various points in time.

As the 2020 Juvenile Champion, Essential Quality entered the year as the leader of the three year old male division and thus far has not been overtaken with certitude.

But by early March, Life is Good temporarily took the lead after producing triple digit Beyers at Santa Anita in both the Sham Stakes and San Felipe Stakes before going on the shelf with a hind-end injury, missing the Triple Crown series.

The same day Life is Good’s injury was announced, Hot Rod Charlie’s win at 1 mile and 3/16th in the Louisiana Derby made him the “it” horse for a short period of time.

After the first Saturday in May, Medina Spirit led the division by defeating both Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie in the Kentucky Derby.

However, that leadership position didn’t even last through through May’s first Sunday.

Rombauer may briefly have inherited the leader’s spot when he bested the Preakness field including a besmirched Derby “winner.” He could have sealed the leadership role with a repeat performance three weeks later.  

However, Essential Quality reasserted himself with a wonderful Belmont Stakes performance, in which he earned a 109 Beyer Speed figure.   

Essential Quality now has six wins from seven starts, the only blemish coming in a good fourth place effort in a blemished Kentucky Derby. He has increased his Beyer figure in all seven of his starts while running at four tracks over five different distances the past nine months. 

Impressive for sure.

Essential Quality probably always was the true leader of this group but his fourth-place Derby finish and his declaration from the Preakness Stakes temporarily overshadowed his talent. 

After a stretch duel for the ages in The Belmont Stakes, Essential Quality has established himself as the clear head of the three year old class – and we find ourselves back to where it all started in January.

Now we turn the calendar to summer campaigns. The Haskell Stakes and the Travers Stakes loom as the two biggest upcoming dirt route races for America’s leading three year olds–and the Haskell is presently coming up huge.

Essential Quality’s trainer Brad Cox has indicated that the August 28th Travers is the next goal for his colt, with a possible prep a month prior in the Jim Dandy Stakes. And he could also cross-enter in the Curlin, providing another suitable prep.

Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality have met three times with Essential Quality holding a 2-1 advantage. They first faced off in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November with Essential Quality getting a three-quarters of a length win over the 94-1 upstart.

They finished heads apart for third in the Kentucky Derby with Hot Rod Charlie getting the edge that day. Their best match to date was certainly in the Belmont Stakes, Essential Quality prevailing in a stretch duel that drew comparisons to the 1989 Preakness featuring Easy Goer and Sunday Silence.

It would be great to see the top two Belmont finishers battle it out a few more times this year. A late summer Saturday in Saratoga sounds like a great spot for for this budding rivalry to be renewed.

Let’s hope the connections in both barns embrace the sporting thing to do for their horses and their sport and these talented three-year-olds stay in good form.

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4 Responses

  1. Peter has compiled an excellent summary of this years three year olds. Until the big figure by essential quality in the Belmont, I thought the three year old group was weak this year. With a better trip in the derby Essential quality might still be undefeated. Essential quality could end up being a very good one.

    1. Preaching to the choir, Dan. While the focus seems to change in each voting year, the NTRA Top 10 weekly poll is a presumed look at the front runners for 2021 Horse of the Year. Like most everyone, we have Mystic Guide at #1. But I ranked Essential Quality, a 3YO obviously, at #2. I think he has upside still, and his indefatigable will to win needs no introduction…

  2. Peter–
    Thanks for an excellent mid-year report on the 3yos!
    Wondering if you will have any observations on the opening of Saratoga in 3 weeks? As a local, I can report that NYRA is taking some flak on their relentless pursuit of the almighty dollar by monetizing every square inch of the hallowed grounds on Union Avenue. For all of their talk about the “customer experience”, NYRA is clearly thumbing their corporate nose at the little guy hanging out on the benches (ie, the few that remain) or picnic tables (formerly free).

    1. Chuck, I’m seeing some of that unhappiness on Racing Twitter as well. Will have a column item on this soon… And, agreed; good job by HRI Faithful member Peter. Happy to post his Dealer’s Choice contributions…

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