A troubled trip resulted in his lone defeat, a fourth in the Kentucky Derby (G1), but Essential Quality has reasserted his supremacy in the three-year-old division by recording wins in the Belmont S. (G1) and Jim Dandy S. (G2).
The gray colt can virtually lock up divisional honors, and keep enhancing his Horse of the Year credentials, with a victory in Saturday’s 152nd running of the $1.25 million Travers S. (G1) at Saratoga. The Brad Cox-trained son of Tapit will be an odds-on favorite against six rivals in the 1 1/4-mile race.
“Just looking at what Essential Quality’s done, the body of work, it’s so much better than any other horse in the race,” said longtime Albany Times-Union correspondent Tim Wilkins, who is covering his 41st Travers. “He lays over the field, there isn’t any horse as accomplished as he is.”
Named champion two-year-old male after capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Essential Quality has won 7-of-8 career starts, earning more than $3.5 million. The Godolphin homebred was interfered with at the break of the Kentucky Derby, costing him valuable positioning when being slammed sideways, and he lost significant ground as jockey Luis Saez was forced to take the overland route due to the rough start.
After coming up a length short at Churchill Downs, Essential Quality rebounded with an outstanding tally in the Belmont S., registering a career-best 111 Brisnet Speed rating for the 1 1/4-length decision.
The regally-bred sophomore wasn’t as visually impressive in his Travers tune-up, recording a hard-fought score in the July 31 Jim Dandy at Saratoga. But the half-length triumph served its purpose.
“I think the Jim Dandy will benefit him from a fitness standpoint, we’re confident he’s fit coming out of that race,” Cox said. “He’s followed it up with two nice works that have sharpened him up mentally, he appears to be better than he’s ever been. We’re in a good spot.”
Essential Quality has never been the flashiest performer, but don’t be fooled by the narrow wins on his resume.
“He doesn’t blow people away the way he runs, but Essential Quality just wins,” Wilkin said. “When he makes his move, his acceleration is much better than everyone else.”
Cox said he’s never been around another like him.
“He’s a grinder, stays on whatever the distance, and he’s all racehorse. Very intelligent horse.”
After growing up on Evelyn Ave. a few blocks from Churchill Downs, Cox has risen to the top of the training ranks. His first Grade 1 victory came in 2018, and Cox earned his first Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer in 2020, winning four Breeders’ Cup races at Keeneland last fall.
Essential Quality will be the second Travers runner for Cox, who finished fifth with Owendale in 2019, and the conditioner notes the race's importance.
“Winning the Travers would be huge,” Cox said. “It’s a race that everyone follows, the biggest race for three-year-olds in the summer, the Midsummer Derby, and one of the biggest races in America. It’s been around a long time, very prestigious, and it would be amazing to win it.”