Saturday’s Blue Grass S. (G2) featured a thrilling finish, with champion Essential Quality prevailing by a neck in the major qualifier for the Kentucky Derby.

Here are three Blue Grass takeaways.

Tough test primes Essential Quality for big showing

Essential Quality had to dig deep to remain unbeaten in the Blue Grass, overhauling Highly Motived in the final strides. After enjoying relatively easy wins in three of his four starts, including his 2021 comeback in the Feb. 27 Southwest S. (G3), the gray colt should benefit from a stiff challenge in his final prep race.

“It was probably what he needed,” trainer Brad Cox said. “It was good for him to get a good test today.”

A Godolphin homebred Tapit colt, Essential Quality registered career-best Brisnet Speed (102) and Late Pace (106) numbers in the classy performance.

Favorite’s role on Derby Day

The Blue Grass was a strong race, and Essential Quality likely guaranteed himself Kentucky Derby favoritism on May 1.

Two preps remain, and Bob Baffert-trained Concert Tour can make a case with an impressive win in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1), but Essential Quality may have done enough already.

As well as being on the scene a long time, Essential Quality appears to be peaking presently. His versatility is an asset – the gray colt can be placed anywhere during the early stages – and Essential Quality is probably more effective stalking the early leaders instead of prompting the pace like he was in the Blue Grass.

The favorite has won six of the last eight runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

Top three advancing

Highly Motivated dictated terms on a marginal pace, with Essential Quality closely tracking in second, and the runner-up stamped his Kentucky Derby ticket with an admirable effort in his two-turn debut.

The Chad Brown trainee took advantage of a field lacking early speed, setting the pace for the first time in his career, and Highly Motivated had shown a preference for Keeneland when posting a 4 1/4-length score in the Nyquist S. last fall.

I’m not sure the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby trip will be to his liking, but came away impressed by Highly Motivated’s effort nonetheless. It will be no surprise to see the talented colt up close in the early stages of the Kentucky Derby.

It was a big gap back to Rombauer, who offered a decent finishing kick to be a clear third and now has the points to make the Derby field. He may not good enough to be a major factor at Churchill Downs, but Rombauer will have more pace to set up his late rally next time. The confirmed closer will offer some appeal for the bottom of the exotics following a couple of encouraging efforts this season.