Whether he can win the run for the roses, as they did in 2016 and 1977, respectively, will be determined in less than a month — but he showed April 3 in winning the $800,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course that he is a legitimate favorite for the American classic.
Essential Quality wore down a stubborn pacesetter in Highly Motivated to win by a neck in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 2 contest, the last of six graded stakes Saturday at the Lexington oval. It didn’t come easily.
The Bluegrass was short on pace, setting the stage for a horse to try to take advantage by going to the lead, and Highly Motivated did just that. Breaking better than he had in his preceding start when third in the one-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct he went to the front beneath Javier Castellano through quarter-mile splits of :23.81, :48.21, and 1:12.08.
Saez turned up the pressure leaving the second turn, but Highly Motivated initially turned him away, maintaining a lead through a mile in 1:35.97 before being worn down in the closing furlong. The winner crossed the finish line a neck in front, timed in 1:48.50 for the distance.
“That other horse was fighting, and I thought we weren’t going to get him,” Saez said. “But I always had faith in Essential Quality. He’s a nice horse. No matter how fast or slow the pace, he always wants to be first at the wire.”
Saez won four races Saturday, surpassed only by jockey Joel Rosario, who rode five winners, four in stakes. Saez won his second Blue Grass following Brody’s Cause in 2016.
“It’s a tremendous feeling,” trainer Brad Cox said. “He had to dig in today. 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.”
He complimented Highly Motivated, a stakes-winning Into Mischief colt, who finished 5 1/2 lengths ahead of Rombauer in third.
Essential Quality and Highly Motivated “really duked it out the whole way. It set up for both of them, and they both responded well,” Cox added. “That was a good race four weeks out [before the Kentucky Derby]. Four weeks from today … hopefully, we’re ready.”
The Klaravich Stable-owned runner-up, trained by Chad Brown, held Essential Quality at bay until the final sixteenth of the Blue Grass when he swapped leads while slightly weakening.
“I’m so proud of my horse and the way he did it today,” Castellano said of Highly Motivated. “Easy fractions on the lead, he galloped along — that’s the first time he did two turns. We tested him a little bit to see how far he could go, and he did it. He tried with one of the best horses in the country, and I give all the credit to the winner. But I would never complain with my horse and the way he did it.”
Essential Quality picked up 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points in the Blue Grass to move into first on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 140 points. Highly Motivated grabbed 40 points for second, advancing his total to 50, enough to secure entry in the Derby, based on historical trends.
Third-place Rombauer, who finished 5 1/2 lengths behind the runner-up, and fourth-place Hidden Stash also earned points. They garnered 20 points and 10 points, respectively, to move their overall tallies to 34 and 30.
Churchill Downs uses points as its preference system for Derby entry when they race overfills beyond its capacity field size of 20 horses.
Rombauer and Hidden Stash’s point totals leave them on the Derby bubble, ranked in 21st and 23rd, respectively, following action across the country Saturday. Two points races remain next week, notably the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, which has a points structure identical to the Blue Grass.
There are typically defections in the weeks leading up to the race, clearing the way for horses not originally among the top 20 to gain entry.
Twenty-three horses have exited the Blue Grass to become Kentucky Derby winners, according to Churchill Downs publicity. None has done so since 2007 when Street Sense rebounded from a second-place finish in the Blue Grass to win the Derby for owner Jim Tafel and trainer Carl Nafzger. Street Sense was also a 2-year-old champion, and like Essential Quality, was trained by a Kentucky-based trainer in Nafzger.
Cox keeps his main stable at Churchill Downs, where Essential Quality regularly trained last year. The trainer grew up two blocks away from the Louisville track.
Essential Quality, an earner of more than $2. 2 million, has raced once beneath the Twin Spires. His maiden victory came at Churchill in his career debut Sept. 5 on the undercard of Kentucky Derby. Last year’s Kentucky Derby was postponed from its traditional date on the first Saturday in May due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.