Can Essential Quality Maintain Momentum on 2021 Triple Crown Trail?

Essential Quality, with Luis Saez riding, won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 6 at Keeneland. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Essential Quality, winner of the $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance on Nov. 6 at Keeneland.

The 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve seems so far away, but as Patrick Reed outlined in his first Kentucky Derby Futures blog for this crop, it’s never too early to start thinking about the first jewel of the Triple Crown. And, what better way to do that than by taking a closer look at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner?

essential quality

Gray or Roan Colt

Sire (Father): Tapit

Dam (Mother): Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality

Owner-Breeder: Godolphin (Ky.)

Trainer: Brad Cox

Ability: Essential Quality improved to 3-for-3 with a three-quarter-length win in the Juvenile Nov. 6 at Keeneland, which followed a runaway 3 ¼-length score in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity Oct. 3 at the same track and 1 1/16-mile distance.

From a speed-figure perspective, this is a colt clearly on the rise with steady improvement from an 85 Equibase Speed Figure for his Sept. 5 debut at three-quarters of a mile at Churchill Downs to a 96 for the Breeders’ Futurity and a 103 for the Juvenile. His Beyer Speed Figures have likewise shown steady progression: 69-88-95; so, too, have his BrisNet speed ratings: 84-92-101.

This is a talented racehorse who has shown some versatility in running style, the ability to identify a target and reel him in, and the mental strength to overcome adversity in his races. Specifically, when it comes to adversity, he overcame traffic trouble in his debut and raced four wide on the second turn in the Juvenile and still completed the final sixteenth of a mile in 6.18 seconds according to Trakus data.

It’s tough to evaluate racehorses after just three starts because they are learning and developing in the mornings during exercise/workouts and in races in the afternoon, but so far Essential Quality seems to boast a good racing mind and elite talent. He beat 10 horses in his debut, eight in the Breeders’ Futurity, and 13 in the Juvenile, so Essential Quality has been challenged and he’s proved up to the task.

Running style: I’ve mentioned in this blog previously that I value versatility in running style because there will always come a time when a racehorse does not get an ideal setup. Pacesetters might get off to a bad start or closers might encounter a dawdling pace, but the truly great horses can adapt and overcome, and often that starts with being a bit versatile.

Essential Quality closed from 7 ½ lengths back in his debut in a sprint and he was nine lengths back after a blistering :45.31 half-mile in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In the Breeders’ Futurity, pacesetter Upstriker completed the first half-mile in leisurely :48.86, and Essential Quality pressed from just a head behind in second. An important aspect of his Breeders’ Futurity win was that he didn’t lose focus after taking command, and powered well clear to win by 3 ¼ lengths.

Heading to the winners' circle. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Connections: Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum bred and owns Essential Quality through his powerhouse global racing-breeding operation, Godolphin.

Sheikh Mohammed, the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai, has been involved in Thoroughbred racing since 1977. According to its website, Godolphin has won 288 Group or Grade 1 races in 14 different countries.

Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley operation won the Preakness in 2006 with Bernardini. Between Godolphin and Darley, Sheikh Mohammed has won three Eclipse Awards as outstanding owner and one as outstanding breeder.

Trainer Brad Cox enjoyed a remarkable Breeders’ Cup in 2020, winning four of the 14 World Championships races: Monomoy Girl in the Longines Distaff; Knicks Go in the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile; Aunt Pearl in the Juvenile Fillies Turf; and Essential Quality in the Juvenile. That gave Cox seven career Breeders’ Cup wins.

Cox, who took out his trainer’s license in 2004, has amassed 198 stakes wins, 84 graded stakes wins, and 19 Grade 1 wins through Nov. 10. His best finish in a Triple Crown race was a third with Owendale in the 2019 Preakness.

Luis Saez has been aboard for both of Essential Quality’s stakes wins. Since taking out his jockey’s license in 2009, Saez has amassed more than 2,500 victories as well as 253 stakes wins and 112 graded stakes victories through Nov. 10. Saez finished second in the 2018 Preakness Stakes with Bravazo and was aboard Maximum Security when he was controversially disqualified from first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby and placed 17th for interference.

Pedigree: Essential Quality is by leading sire Tapit, who is responsible for champions Stardom Bound, Untapable, Unique Bella, and Hansen. Tapit is the sire of Belmont Stakes winners Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016), and Tapwrit (2017) as well as 2019 Belmont Stakes runner-up and Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Tacitus.

Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality, is the dam (mother) of Essential Quality. She finished second five times in stakes races and third in a pair of stakes, including the Grade 3 Bed o’ Roses Handicap in 2013. She was a pure sprinter who competed exclusively in races between three-quarters of a mile and seven-eighths of a mile. Delightful Quality is a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to 2005 champion 2-year-old filly Folklore.

Essential Quality’s grandam (maternal grandmother) is unraced Contrive, by Storm Cat, and his third dam (maternal great-grandmother) is multiple graded stakes winner Jeano, by Fappiano, who won at 1 1/16 miles but was at her best at sprint distances.

From what we’ve seen on the track thus far, Essential Quality looks capable of stretching out to 1 1/8 miles and possibly beyond, but based on the bottom half of his pedigree I would not say that is a guarantee. Of course, being by a sire with three Belmont Stakes winners bolsters his case from a pedigree perspective.

Essential Quality is a talented 2-year-old colt on the rise and one of the obvious candidates to be a finalist for the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, if not the front-runner. Whether or not he can continue to progress as a 3-year-old remains to be seen, but right now there is no reason to discount his chances.

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