Kentucky Derby Context: Essential Quality

April 21st, 2021 horse racing analyst James Scully attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1981. Along with a brief profile of this year’s contenders, he is providing some historical context.

Essential Quality, the Kentucky Derby favorite, exhibited his will to win in his final prep race, when he determinedly got up by a neck in the Blue Grass S. (G2) to remain unbeaten.

The gray colt opened his racing career with a convincing maiden victory at Churchill Downs in September. He followed with a pair of Grade 1 wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), and was named champion two-year-old male.

After he opened his sophomore campaign with an easy tally in the Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park, Essential Quality overcame adverse circumstances in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass. Jockey Luis Saez hustled the colt from the gate to track the main rival, Highly Motivated, who had everything his own way and dictated a moderate pace.

Highly Motivated dug in courageously when challenged in the stretch, but Essential Quality would not be denied.

Essential Quality’s Brisnet numbers don’t lay over the competition, but he registered a co-field best 102 Speed figure in the Blue Grass. And he is eligible to benefit from the stiff test in his final prep.

His tactical speed should allow him to establish an up-close, stalking trip, in the second or third flight, behind the early leaders. Essential Quality raced relatively close to the leaders in four of his five starts, but he can adapt and showed his versatility when he rallied from well off the pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Essential Quality is by Tapit. The three-time leading sire has produced three winners of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont S. (G1), but he hasn't sired a Kentucky Derby winner. Owner/breeder Godolphin has yet to have a top three finisher from 11 previous Derby starts, with Frosted’s fourth in 2015 the best result.

Many Thoroughbred racing fans would be happy to see Saez finally wear the Roses. The 28-year-old jockey was up on Maximum Security, who was disqualified after he finished first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

Trainer Brad Cox has risen up the training ranks in the last few years, and the 41-year-old will make his first Kentucky Derby appearance. Cox also has Caddo River and Mandaloun in the projected 20-horse field.

Cox is trying to become the first Louisville-born trainer to win the Kentucky Derby. He notched his first Grade 1 win via Monomoy Girl in 2018 and earned his first Eclipse Award for leader trainer in 2020.

Essential Quality has a fine chance to provide Cox with his biggest prize yet.