She was the 41-year-old trainer's first grade 1 winner, a Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks victor plus a two-time champion and the horse who prevailed in two editions of the Grade 1 Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff.
But that doesn't mean there cannot be a dead-heat for the top spot.
That was the feeling for Cox as emotions welled up in him after watching yet another brilliant performance by Godolphin's Essential Quality, a gifted colt who keeps challenging his trainer to find new superlatives for him.
This time it was "special" as the homebred son of Tapit added to an already dazzling legacy by outdueling Grade 1 Preakness Stakes runner-up Midnight Bourbon to the wire to capture the Aug. 28 centerpiece $1,225,000 Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes for 3-year-olds by a neck before a crowd of 44,507 at Saratoga Race Course.
"He's very, very special. He really is," Cox said after Essential Quality, the champion 2-year-old male in 2020, won for the eighth time in nine career starts. "It's hard to explain what it feels like because words can't describe it. You work so long and have so many horses and we've had Monomoy Girl and other champions, but he's right there with her for sure. I'm just going to say it's a dead-heat between him and Monomoy Girl and I don't want to split it. I love them both and they are special horses.
"This horse is a first-ballot Hall of Famer," he added. "He's a great horse and you're not going to get horses like him every year. A horse like him is few and far between."
As big a fan of Essential Quality as Cox may be, there was one other backer of the multiple grade 1 winner that caught Cox by surprise. In presenting the Travers trophy to Cox, jockey Luis Saez, and Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA, newly installed New York Governor Kathy Hochul let her allegiance be known.
"She told me she was a fan of this horse," Cox said. "That meant a lot. It was pretty cool."
Finding something not to like about Essential Quality is the arduous task. He's done everything right in his career, except for that race on the first Saturday in May when he finished a wide fourth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, losing by only a length.
Since then, he rebounded to take the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes and now the Midsummer Derby at the Spa. The combined margin of victory in that trio of wins was about two lengths, but there was little doubt in each that he was the best horse. Just as it seems virtually certain that he will eventually be named the champion 3-year-old.
Added to all of that, with the Nov. 6 Longines Breeders' Cup Classic on the horizon, we may not have seen the best from the son of the Elusive Quality mare Delightful Quality.
"Maybe we haven't seen the best from him. He's just 3," Cox said. "He keeps getting better. He's that good. He's that intelligent and he's a tremendous horse."
He's also durable and has remained in peak form for amazing period of time. He became only the eighth 2-year-old champion in the Breeders' Cup era (since 1984) to win the Travers and stands along with Street Sense as one of two horses to win the Grade 1 TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, be named 2-year-old champion, win a Triple Crown race and add a Travers victory.
For the entire Godolphin team there was satisfaction in seeing a homebred continue to post one grand achievement after another.
"I want to thank and acknowledge (Godolphin owner) His Highness Sheikh Mohammed. This is a great accomplishment for the whole Godolphin team to be a part of this magical ride. It says a lot about his breeding and racing program to be able to put an athlete like this to the forefront as a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old. He's brought a lot of joy to everyone. It's been a great team effort. Brad and his team have done a great job," Bell said. "I remember the early comments from Niall Brennan about him. He can go wherever you want him to go and do whatever you want him to do. All you have to do is ask and (Essential Quality) will deliver whatever you want. It's always a surprise (when they turn out to be this good) but it's not a surprise that he had so much talent. The surprise is what he's done in the afternoon with all that talent."
On Saturday, it took talent and determination to add another victory.
When last seen in grade 1 company, Winchell Thoroughbreds' Midnight Bourbon was stumbling and unseating his rider when Hot Rod Charlie drifted into his path in the Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Stakes. Unscathed from that July 17 mishap, the son of Tiznow had a great trip in the 1 1/4-mile Travers.
Under Ricardo Santana Jr., he set the early pace and was ahead by 3 1/2 lengths after a half-mile in a very comfortable 1:14.49. Essential Quality was second at that point and, in a race where Miles D would finish third, five lengths behind Midnight Bourbon, it turned out to be a two-horse duel to the wire.
Under urging from Saez, Essential Quality cut the margin to a half-length after a mile in 1:38.81 and from there the two 3-year-olds stayed locked together to the wire. Essential Quality ($2.90), a 2-5 favorite, forged a narrow lead at the eighth pole and then maintained it to the wire as Midnight Bourbon kept battling through every step in a 10-furlong test timed in a fast 2:01.96.
"He gets past a horse and he can stay there," said Saez, the leading rider at Saratoga.
Steve Asmussen, who trains Midnight Bourbon, was quite satisfied with his colt's effort.
"We got the racetrack and the set up we wanted. Ricardo gave him the right trip," Asmussen said. "He kept running. What a constitution he's got. He ran hard. I'm very happy. For them to go from 14 and change to 2:01, that's running. They picked it up."
Essential Quality is the fourth foal from Delightful Quality and her lone stakes winner. She also has an unraced 2-year-old filly named Famed (Uncle Mo).
He also has another special designation among her foals.
"He's a champion," Cox said, "and he ran like one today."
2021 Runhappy Travers S.
August 28th, 2021
- Owner / Godolphin, LLC
- Breeder / Godolphin
- Owner / Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC
- Breeder / Stonestreet Thoroughbred Holdings LLC
- Owner / Cypress Creek Equine, Bennewith, Arnold and Spendthrift Farm LLC
- Breeder / Southern Equine Stables, LLC
- Owner / Three Chimneys Farm, LLC (Goncalo B. Torrealba) and Fern Circle Stables
- Breeder / Heider Family Stables, LLC
- Owner / FTGGG Racing
- Breeder / Brereton C. Jones