Making the Grade, which runs through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners of (or top performers in) key races, usually from the previous weekend. We’ll be analyzing impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
Many 2-year-old champions do not progress and improve during their sophomore seasons on the racetrack. The simple explanation for this is that racehorses who dominate at 2 often are the early maturing, precocious types, while those that excel at 1 1/8 miles to 1 ½ miles typically don’t fit that mold. It seems like for every American Pharoah there are at least twice as many 2-year-old champions who peak as juvenile – but that most certainly has not been the case with Essential Quality.
Ability: Essential Quality was named champion 2-year-old male after a perfect 3-for-3 season that included victories in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. Equibase, Beyer, and Brisnet speed figures all had him improving with each race to a then-career-top of 101 (Equibase), 95 (Beyer Speed Figure), and 101 (Brisnet) for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Given an extended layoff by trainer Brad Cox, Essential Quality returned 3 ½ months later and won the Southwest Stakes Feb. 27 on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park. He then won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes April 3 at Keeneland before he finished fourth, beaten by just a length, as the 2.90-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve May 1 at Churchill Downs after a wide trip.
With a record of five wins in six starts and not a single bad performance on his résumé, Essential Quality was again favored in the Belmont Stakes, as he has been in every race this year, and met those expectations with a 1 ¼-length victory over Hot Rod Charlie. (Notably, the same pair that finished first and second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile also ran 1-2 in the Belmont Stakes.)
With a classic victory to his credit and only a wide trip and a length in the Kentucky Derby separating him from an unblemished record, Essential Quality very likely moves to the front of the 3-year-old male division and appears to be the cream of his crop at midseason.
Essential Quality earned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure, which was a new career best, the fastest for a 3-year-old so far in 2021, tied for the fastest on the main track this year at any distance, and was the fastest for a Belmont winner since Empire Maker’s 110 in 2003.
Equibase was a bit less optimistic as Essential Quality for the third straight race earned a 109 Equibase Speed Figure, which demonstrates how consistently the Tapit colt has performed.
I’m not writing anything revelatory when I say that what we’ve seen from Essential Quality on the racetrack and the speed figures on paper paint the picture of a special racehorse.
“We were so fortunate to have another opportunity [after the Derby],” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA. “He has never run a bad race in his life, and I think he showed [June 5] he met the test of a champion. To do what he did as a 2-year-old and come through these races as a 3-year-old with the mile-and-a-half classic, it’s a great tribute to him.”
Running style: Essential Quality has now pressed the pace and won a Grade 1 race (Breeders’ Futurity), closed and won a Grade 1 race (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile), and stalked the pace and won a Grade 1 (Belmont Stakes). He’s not only versatile enough to win in a variety of different ways, he’s talented enough to do it against the best competition in U.S. Thoroughbred racing.
Connections: Essential Quality is a homebred of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s global Godolphin racing and breeding empire and he gave his owner a second victory in a U.S. Triple Crown race following Bernardini’s 2006 Preakness win. The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed enjoyed a banner day June 5 as he also won the Epsom Derby with homebred Adayar. He is a four-time winner of the Eclipse Award as outstanding owner in North America.
Trainer Brad Cox earned his first Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer in 2020 and picked up his first victory in a U.S. Triple Crown race with Essential Quality. However, if Medina Spirit is disqualified for his medication violation in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, the Cox-trained Mandaloun would be elevated to first.
Cox’s career has really taken off in recent years as he’s amassed purse earnings of $15 million or more in each of the last three years and is poised to make a run at his career-best mark of $18.9 million set in 2020. A Louisville native, Cox won four Breeders’ Cup races in 2020 and now has seven in the last three years.
Jockey Luis Saez has finished in the top 10 in both purse earnings and wins in each of the last four seasons from 2017 to 2020. His best previous finish in a Triple Crown race was a second aboard Bravazo in the 2018 Preakness. A native of Panama City, Saez has amassed nearly 2,700 victories since taking out his license in 2009.
Pedigree: In Making the Grade, pedigree usually is considered as part of the equation to determine whether a 3-year-old will be able to handle longer races like the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby and 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes. Since, we already know Essential Quality has proved his ability to excel in route races, let’s keep this section concise.
Essential Quality is by four-time leading sire Tapit, who has emerged from the Seattle Slew line as a powerful source of class and stamina in the Thoroughbred breed. Essential Quality gave his sire a remarkable fourth Belmont Stakes winner in eight years following Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016), and Tapwrit (2017).
Essential Quality is out of multiple stakes-placed winner Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality. Delightful Quality earned $253,900 on the racetrack and placed in seven stakes, including a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Bed o’ Roses Handicap in 2013. Delightful Quality is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire) to 2005 champion 2-year-old filly Folklore.
Second-Half Outlook: Cox said the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes on July 31 at Saratoga Race Course could be used as a prep for the Travers Stakes and wins in both races would cement Essential Quality as the front-runner for the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male. He’s so consistent and talented that’s it’s hard to envision a scenario where Essential Quality is not a major player in the key 3-year-old races in the second half of the season and a prime candidate for the Breeders’ Cup Classic provided he remains healthy.