Of all the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prep races held so far in 2021, Saturday’s $750,000, Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course is surely among the most befuddling. Not because it’s difficult to identify the key contenders, but because the pace scenario is extremely difficult to analyze.
The Blue Grass drew nine horses, and between them they’ve started in 41 races. Yet none of them has ever employed front-running tactics — not even once! In fact, the vast majority are one-dimensional deep closers lacking any tactical speed at all, suggesting the Blue Grass will unfold at a pedestrian pace for much of the journey before turning into a crazy sprint over the final quarter-mile.
So, what does this mean for #4 Essential Quality, the reigning champion two-year-old male and the early favorite to win the Kentucky Derby? Normally, the Godolphin homebred is a late runner, just like so many of his Blue Grass rivals. In the Grade 1 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance at Keeneland last fall, Essential Quality rallied boldly from eighth place to defeat future Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie by three-quarters of a length. And in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes Feb. 27 at Oaklawn Park, Essential Quality came charging from a mid-pack position to cruise to victory by 4 1/4 lengths.
But fortunately for bettors planning to support Essential Quality in the Blue Grass, the son of Tapit is a little more tactical than first glance suggests. Think back to the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last October, when Essential Quality was confronted by a very lackadaisical pace. Rather than settle near the back of the pack as usual, Essential Quality traveled along in second place, tracking and then pressing the pace, before seizing command to win by 3 1/4 lengths.
This versatility should come in handy in the Blue Grass, allowing Essential Quality to secure a favorable forward position and avoid being compromised by a slow pace. He’s trained sharply since the Southwest and may show improvement in his second start of the season, considering trainer Brad Cox wins at a lofty 27% rate with horses running back for the second time off a layoff. Plus, Essential Quality has drawn perfectly in post-position four, with five pure closers to his outside. This means Essential Quality won’t have to rush to secure early position — as long as he breaks alertly, he can settle into a comfortable, unencumbered stalking position, free of traffic and free to bide his time until the moment is right to strike.
Really, the only other horse who seems quick enough to secure a forward position — and thus give Essential Quality a tussle — is #3 Highly Motivated, representing four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown. Like Essential Quality, Highly Motivated has shown flashes of serious talent and an affinity for Keeneland. But unlike Essential Quality, Highly Motivated figures to offer enticing odds in the wagering.
Technically, Highly Motivated is more of a closing type than a speed horse. But the Into Mischief colt has also shown the ability to race within a few lengths of hot fractions, so in a slow-paced renewal of the Blue Grass, he figures to wind up closer to the lead than usual.
As a juvenile, Highly Motivated was sensational. After finishing second by a neck in his debut at Saratoga Race Course, the bay colt rallied from two lengths behind solid fractions of :22.79 and :46.43 to defeat future Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa winner Known Agenda by 1 3/4 lengths. Then, in the Nyquist Stakes at Keeneland, Highly Motivated settled 2 1/2 lengths behind fast quarter-mile splits of :21.73 and :44.65 before drawing off to win by 4 1/4 lengths in track-record time.
After taking four months off, Highly Motivated returned to action in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on Mar. 6 at Aqueduct. Stretching out to one mile for the first time, Highly Motivated didn’t get the best of trips. After breaking slowly, he was forced to steady in traffic and settled back in sixth place behind an unremarkable early pace. Nevertheless, Highly Motivated fought on gamely through the stretch, rallying into solid closing fractions to finish third by just 1 3/4 lengths.
With the Gotham prep run under his belt, Highly Motivated is eligible to take a big step forward in the Blue Grass. Just think back to 2018, when Brown’s champion two-year-old male Good Magic kicked off his sophomore season with a dull third-place finish in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes, only to come back and win the Blue Grass in his second start of the year. Keep in mind, Brown wins at a 28% rate with horses running back for the second time following a layoff.
In terms of Beyer, Brisnet, and Equibase Speed Figures, Highly Motivated and Essential Quality have run very similar races, so it’s not a stretch to think Highly Motivated can spring an upset with the right trip. Drawing post-position two may force Highly Motivated to show more speed in the Blue Grass, which would be a benefit given the paceless nature of the race. If Highly Motivated breaks sharply and winds up securing an uncontested lead, he may prove impossible to run down.
So how should we bet the race? Since Essential Quality and Highly Motivated are the two favorites, there isn’t much money to be made by playing them both on top. So let’s take a stand with Highly Motivated and relegate Essential Quality to second place in exacta, trifecta, and superfecta tickets.
Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget
$6 to win on #3 Highly Motivated
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 11th race, $6 to win on 3
$4 exacta: 3 with 4
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 11th race, $4 exacta 3 with 4
Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget
$15 to win on #3 Highly Motivated
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 11th race, $15 to win on 3
$6 exacta: 3 with 4
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 11th race, $6 exacta 3 with 4
$3 trifecta: 3 with 4 with 1,2,5 ($9)
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 11th race, $3 trifecta 3 with 4 with 1,2,5
Wagering Strategy on a $50 Budget
$20 to win on #3 Highly Motivated
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 11th race, $20 to win on 3
$9 exacta: 3 with 4
What to say at the betting window: Keeneland, 11th race, $9 exacta 3 with 4