Godolphin's Essential Quality, the champion 2-year-old male of 2020, shined his first start at age 3, defeating Spielberg and Jackie's Warrior in the $750,000, Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park Feb. 27.
Racing on a sloppy track for the first time after a 3-for-3 campaign on fast surfaces last year, the homebred son of Tapit handled the conditions as easily as the competition in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest. Guided off the inside by jockey Luis Saez to secure a position into the first turn toward the outside, seemingly the best part of the racetrack, Essential Quality rated in fourth, as Jackie's Warrior went to the lead with a half-mile in :48.11.
Saez sent his mount three wide after the leader on the second turn, with Woodhouse bidding in between horses, and shortly after six furlongs in 1:13.59, Essential Quality had moved to the lead. A new threat then emerged on the outside when Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity winner Spielberg made a four-wide sweep.
Essential Quality answered the challenge. Given hand urging from Saez, he drew away by 4 1/4 lengths from Spielberg, who was another 4 1/4 lengths clear of third-place Jackie's Warrior. The winner was timed in 1:45.48 for the distance, including a solid final sixteenth of a mile in 6.43 seconds.
"The plan was to try to follow [Jackie's Warrior] the whole way," Saez said. "Everything came together. He broke pretty well and at the five-eighths pole he took the bridle and was really pulling me, but I was waiting, just trying to wait with him. We came to the stretch just so easy. He switched leads and just took off. What a nice horse. He finished very strong and I still had a lot of horse."
Essential Quality improved to 4-for-4 and elevated his lifetime earnings to more than $1.7 million. The Southwest was his third stakes victory, all at 1 1/16 miles, following earlier triumphs in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders' Futurity and Grade 1 TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. The Southwest earned him 10 qualifying points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, leaving him with 40 points, in third place on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard behind Greatest Honour and Mandaloun.
Trainer Brad Cox, who admitted to nervousness before Saturday's race, was pleased to see Essential Quality ($3.80) take a step from age 2 to 3.
"He certainly acted like he had in the morning, but you never know till they show up in the afternoon," the trainer said. "And he definitely looked like he did move forward. He had a little wild trip today, [then] kicked on down the lane."
In rallying for second following a poor start under Martin Garcia, Spielberg rebounded from a fourth-place finish in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, in which he was beaten more than 11 lengths by Medina Spirit. That race had followed a nose victory over The Great One in the Los Alamitos Futurity and earlier stakes placings in Grade 1 races in California last year.
"After the start, Martin didn't panic. He stayed back there and rode his race. He was just moving a little," in the gate, said his trainer, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. "But, you have to give credit to the winner. He's a good horse.
"I'm proud of the way [Spielberg] ran. He showed up."
Jackie's Warrior, winner of three graded races last year, including twice in Grade 1s, again could not keep pace with Essential Quality in a two-turn, 1 1/16-mile contest. He lost by 3 1/4 lengths when fourth behind Essential Quality in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his only other two-turn route last fall.
A son of Maclean's Music, Jackie's Warrior chased fast splits in the Juvenile, but he got his preferred front-running trip Saturday. He simply did not accelerate when asked by regular jockey Joel Rosario when challenged on the second turn.
He and Spielberg were also racing on a sloppy track for the first time, though Spielberg did have experience on a drying-out track rated good in the Robert Lewis.
Pace-pressing Woodhouse weakened to fourth. Longshots Last Samurai, Santa Cruiser, and Saffa's Day completed the order of finish in the seven-horse field.
Bred in Kentucky by Godolphin, Essential Quality is the only winner and the second starter of five foals from the Elusive Quality mare Delightful Quality. Among her younger foals, she has an unnamed Uncle Mo 2-year-old filly. She was reported bred to Nyquist for 2021.
Seven times stakes-placed, including once in a Grade 3, Delightful Quality is a half-sister to Folklore, winner of the Grade 1 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the champion 2-year-old filly of that year.
Though Delightful Quality was a sprinter, Essential Quality has shown no distance limitations.
"He's a very fit horse that really, he doesn't seem to have a bottom to him. I think the further we go the better he's going to get," Cox said.
Essential Quality will return to training at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, where he prepped for the Southwest before shipping to Oaklawn. By the middle of March, Cox and the Godolphin team will decide where the colt will make his second and final start before the May 1 Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs. His final prep is likely to come in either the $800,000 Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland April 3 or the $1 million Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn.