Five Weekend Takeaways: Key Derby Preps and a Superstar’s Return

Monomoy Girl took command late and won the Bayakoa Stakes on Feb. 18 at Oaklawn Park to kick off her 6-year-old campaign. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Pedulla presents five takeaways from this weekend’s racing, which featured the $300,000 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the $750,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Saturday and superstar Monomoy Girl’s highly-anticipated 6-year-old debut in the $250,000 Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn on Sunday.

Essential Quality (Eclipse Sportswire)

WORTH THE WAIT: Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox stayed the course through two weather-related postponements of the Southwest Stakes, convinced that 1 1/16-mile prep at Oaklawn was the best spot for the seasonal debut of reigning 2-year-old champion Essential Quality. The race had initially been scheduled for Feb. 15. Cox’s patience was rewarded when Godolphin’s prized colt bided his time in a perfect stalking position for jockey Luis Saez before easily overtaking pace-setting Jackie’s Warrior to win by 4 ¼ lengths in the slop. “Good horses do overcome, but that doesn’t mean the trainer doesn’t worry,” Cox said. “We just want to keep him in bubble wrap and get to the next race.” Essential Quality extended his perfection to four wins in as many starts while his earnings spiked to $1,785,144.

Greatest Honour (Eclipse Sportswire)

BEST TO COME: Courtlandt FarmsGreatest Honour launched his 3-year-old campaign with a 5 ¾-length victory in the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30 and followed that with an overpowering move down the lane that allowed him capture the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth by a length and a half. Shug McGaughey, the Hall of Famer who trains the son of Tapit, is confident the youngster is just beginning to show what he can do. “He’s won twice down here now in stakes doing what he doesn’t want to do, and that’s a mile and a sixteenth,” McGaughey said. “Hopefully, as we keep going longer, he’ll keep improving. The farther the better for him.” Greatest Honour will attempt to complete a sweep of the series of key Kentucky Derby preps offered by Gulfstream Park by going a mile and an eighth in the March 27 Florida Derby.

WAY TO REBOUND: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert suddenly found himself with a project on his hands after Spielberg, a gaudy $1 million yearling purchase at Keeneland’s September sale, came in fourth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park in his first start this season. Although victorious stablemate Medina Spirit, Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie were separated by necks in a blanket finish, Spielberg languished 11 ¼ lengths from the top. Spielberg’s connections were encouraged by his vastly improved performance in the Southwest. Despite missing the break, he made a big run from far back for jockey Martin Garcia and took second to Essential Quality. “He showed up. I’m very happy,” Baffert said. “Other than the gate, everything went well. He shipped well and he ran well.”

CUTTING BACK: Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. decided to test Drain the Clock by entering him in the Fountain of Youth after an emphatic score in the seven-furlong Claiborne Farm Swale Stakes at Gulfstream. The Maclean’s Music colt help up well to be second at the longer distance after carving out an opening quarter of a mile in 23.66 seconds with half a mile going in 47.18 seconds beneath jockey Edgard Zayas. But he was no match for Greatest Honour, who joins unbeaten Essential Quality as leading Derby contenders, and Joseph announced Sunday that Drain the Clock would return to shorter distances. “I think we have a Grade 1 horse and he’s probably going to be best at one turn, so most likely we’re going to stick to one turn,” he said.

Monomoy Girl (Eclipse Sportswire)

WHAT A CHAMPION!: Monomoy Girl looks as overpowering at the start of her 6-year-old campaign as she did when she closed last season with the second Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff triumph of her illustrious career. The reigning champion older mare did everything right in splashing home a two-length victress against Our Super Freak in Bayakoa Stakes on Sunday. She broke farthest outside as part of a field of six and pounced on pace-setting Finite when regular rider Florent Geroux signaled her that it was time to go. She completed the 1 1/16-mile contest in 1:45.92 at sloppy Oaklawn. “She always delivers, so it’s easy to appreciate a champion,” Geroux said. “I’m the luckiest jockey in the world right now.” Monomoy Girl’s next target will be the April 17 Apple Blossom Stakes, also at Oaklawn.

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