Essential Quality (left) winning the Blue Grass (G2) - Keeneland Photo

Essential Quality needed every ounce of his speed, stamina, talent, and determination to prevail in Saturday’s $800,000 Blue Grass S. (G2) at Keeneland. With a furlong remaining, the outcome was decidedly in doubt.

But in the end, the heart of a champion prevailed. When the going got tough, Essential Quality dug deep, kept his undefeated record intact, and cemented his status as the favorite for the 2021 Kentucky Derby (G1).

After kicking off the season with a blowout win in the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park, Essential Quality—the champion two-year-old male of 2020—entered the Blue Grass with a perfect 4-for-4 resume. Bettors were keen to support Essential Quality in Keeneland’s signature Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race, establishing the Godolphin homebred as the overwhelming 1-2 favorite against eight rivals.

The only other runner to receive any significant support was Highly Motivated, who set a track record when dominating Keeneland’s 6 1/2-furlong Nyquist S. last fall. As it turns out, bettors analyzed the Blue Grass to perfection.
When the starting gates opened, a slow pace materialized, with Highly Motivated showing the way through modest splits of :23.83, :48.21, and 1:12.08. Essential Quality—normally a late runner—found himself racing in second place, tracking Highly Motivated while seemingly poised to pounce at any moment.
Approaching the homestretch, the two favorites began to draw clear of their pursuers, and the Blue Grass turned into a match race. Highly Motivated turned for home with a half-length advantage and still had plenty of gas left in the tank, sprinting the fourth quarter mile in a rapid :23.89. But Essential Quality matched Highly Motivated’s every move, and under urging from jockey Luis Saez, Essential Quality gallantly forged ahead in the final strides to win by a neck.
“That other horse was fighting, and I thought we weren’t going to get him,” Saez told Keeneland after the race. “But I always had faith in Essential Quality. He’s a nice horse No matter how fast or slow the pace, he always wants to be first at the wire.”

It was a thrilling finish, with Highly Motivated pulling 5 1/2 lengths clear of El Camino Real Derby winner Rombauer, who raced in third place throughout. Hidden Stash, Keepmeinmind, Sittin On Go, Hush of a Storm, Untreated, and Leblon completed the order of finish for the 1 1/8-mile race, which elapsed in a respectable 1:48.50.

Winning trainer Brad Cox praised Essential Quality’s tenacity and noted how the hard effort would serve as a perfect sharpener for the Kentucky Derby.
“It’s a tremendous feeling. He had to dig in today. It was probably what he needed. It was good for him to get a good test today. He did everything easy enough in his last race. I was proud of what he was able to overcome today. Big effort,” said Cox. “That was a good race four weeks out [before the Kentucky Derby]. Four weeks from today. Hopefully we’re ready.”
In addition to earning $480,000, Essential Quality picked up 100 Kentucky Derby qualification points, boosting his total to 140 to rank atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Highly Motivated likewise made a strong move up the standings, ending the afternoon with 50 points to his credit. Rombauer (34 points) and Hidden Stash (32 points) currently sit on the bubble for qualifying purposes.