Bettors who supported Essential Quality heavily in the 2021 Travers Stakes had an extremely tense time as he dueled with Midnight Bourbon all the way to the wire on August 28 at Saratoga. The Godolphin homebred was the 2/5 favorite and rewarded his followers, winning by a neck under Luis Saez for his adoring trainer, Brad Cox.
Steve Asmussen’s Midnight Bourbon was the second favorite at 6/1 and led until it mattered under Ricardo Santana Jr. He gave everything to maintain his challenge for the lead. It was a battle that neither colt deserved to lose in this valuable grade 1 contest for three-year-olds run over a mile and a quarter.
The 19/1 shot Miles D headed the pursuing pack to take third, five lengths behind the leaders under Flavien Prat for Chad Brown. The two most popular horses with bettors had easily outpaced their rivals as expected. Keepmeinmind (11/1) was beaten a quarter of a length into fourth, four lengths ahead of Kenny McPeek’s King Fury (17/1).
Saez believes that Essential Quality, a son of Tapit out of Delightful Quality, a daughter of Elusive Quality, is very intelligent and will not do more than is necessary to win. When he was interviewed immediately after the race he pointed out that Essential Quality did not look tired. He was right, the colt had barely broken a sweat and was not breathing hard. This economy of effort has been learned over time.
In his seasonal debut Essential Quality scored by over four lengths at Oaklawn Park in the Southwest Stakes in February. Next time out he succeeded by a neck in the Toyota Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland in March. It was a narrow margin of victory for a 1/2 favorite but he had mitigating circumstances. He collided with a rival after breaking to the right and lost significant momentum when it was crucial to get a good position.
It was another issue at the start that probably caused his sole defeat in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. He broke correctly but his rivals did not and he was bumped around pinball-style. Saez consequently struggled to reach his desired position and encountered trouble in running, adding to his list of excuses for losing as a 3/1 favorite. Despite the nightmare trip he managed to finish just over a length behind Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit in fourth. Medina Spirit subsequently failed a drug test and may be disqualified.
Essential Quality resumed his winning habit in the Belmont a month later in June, defeating Hot Rod Charlie by more than a length on his first experience of a mile and a half trip. It was the same story in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Hot Rod Charlie finished second to him. Nobody expected that to happen, Hot Rod Charlie was the 100/1 outsider of the pack. Robertino Diodoro’s Keepmeinmind was third.
Essential Quality’s exploits are so extraordinary that Kathy Hochul, the recently appointed New York Governor, has let it be known that she is one of this striking gray’s fans. Cox was moved by her declaration of support. She has good judgment in other spheres too, she was the only person with the sense to wear a mask correctly at the prize ceremony and there was a crowd over 44,500 at the track.
What happened in the race?
All seven colts broke well and Ricardo Santana Jr urged Midnight Bourbon to take the lead from the inside gate. He was closely pursued by Essential Quality who jumped out beside him from gate two and was at his flank approaching the club house turn. Miles D raced in third with Dynamic One (63/10), Masqueparade (18/1) and Keepmeinmind close behind him in that order. King Fury was in no rush to join the action in front of him and raced at the back of the pack, trailing it by two lengths.
Santana set sensible fractions, completing the quarter mile in 24.18 seconds. He found himself unchallenged for the lead soon after it with an advantage of over a length over Essential Quality. That lead increased to more than three lengths as the half mile was run in 48.96. The positions mid-pack were unchanged.
After a 1 minute 14.49 three-quarter mile the pack decided to engage pursuit mode. Midnight Bourbon’s lead was reduced to a length as Saez asked Essential Quality to quicken, the pack covered his move and were right behind him.
Rounding the turn at the top of the stretch Essential Quality had his nose level with the leader’s quarters, both jockeys got active as the duel began. At the eighth pole that gray nose was just ahead of the long term leader who tried hard to regain his advantage. The pack could not stay with the pace and it was obviously a two horse race for victory. Essential Quality posted a winning time of 2.01.96.
Asmussen was pleased with his colt’s performance and praised his jockey for giving him ‘the right trip’. Santana set perfect fractions and ensured that Midnight Bourbon took the shortest possible route to the wire. Asmussen also saluted his son of Tiznow’s toughness and determination. He was second to Rombauer in the Preakness and looked likely to secure a podium finish in the Haskell when clipping heels and stumbling, unseating Paco Lopez. It was Hot Rod Charlie who caused the incident and crossed the wire first. He was subsequently disqualified.
What next for Essential Quality?
Cox has reported that Essential Quality has come out of the Travers in good shape and that the next race that is firmly on his schedule is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar on November 6. He is not ruling out another run in the interim period but is waiting to see how he trains in the next few weeks before making a decision. Essential Quality is the third favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic betting at 11/2, only Knicks Go (4/1) and Mystic Guide (5/1) are marginally more popular.