Essential Quality, Vequist gain Breeders’ Cup glory at Keeneland

Champions were almost certainly crowned on Day 1 of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland. Billed as “Future Stars Friday,” the elite afternoon of racing at Keeneland featured five Breeders’ Cup events for 2-year-olds, led by the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

A major steppingstone toward the 2021 Kentucky Derby, the Juvenile saw a full field of 14 colts and geldings face the starter over 1 116 miles. The undefeated Jackie’s Warrior was favored at 9-10 after posting easy victories in the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1), but in the end it was Essential Quality who stole the show, rallying boldly to prevail in a driving finish.

The early pace was fast as longshot Dreamer’s Disease carved out fractions of :22.58, :45.31, and 1:10.48. Jackie’s Warrior, normally a front-runner, was initially unable to keep up and settled in fourth place early going, gradually edging closer while Essential Quality rated in eighth place under jockey Luis Saez.

“I had a perfect trip, a beautiful trip,” said Saez. “My horse broke so well. He was in the right spot. I knew there was going to be a lot of speed so we were in the right spot.”

Turning for home, Jackie’s Warrior battled to a narrow lead, but the favorite was clearly growing leg-weary with a furlong remaining. 94-1 longshot Hot Rod Charlie was the first to pounce, pulling alongside and threatening to post a huge upset, but then Essential Quality burst into contention on the far outside. Charging powerfully, the Godolphin homebred forged clear down the lane to win by three-quarters of a length.

“At the three-eighths he gave me that kick so I knew we had a chance to win the race,” continued Saez. “He can run all day.”

“It was a tremendous effort by this horse,” agreed Cox. “At the three-eighths pole, Luis stayed after him pretty good and I was hoping [Essential Quality] wouldn’t flatten out. But he stayed on. He’s a tremendous horse, has an amazing amount of stamina. We’re going to enjoy this one and obviously (the Derby) will be our goal moving forward.”

A Godolphin homebred trained by Brad Cox, Essential Quality reached the finish line in 1:42.09. Keepmeinmind rallied to beat Jackie’s Warrior for third place, followed by Rombauer, Dreamer’s Disease, King Fury, Classier, Sittin On Go, Reinvestment Risk, Calibrate, Camp Hope, Likeable, and Next.

Previously victorious in Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1), Essential Quality is undefeated in three starts and looms as the early favorite for the 2021 Kentucky Derby. He’ll head into winter atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 30 points, and securing the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male should be a formality.


Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Race History

For many years, racing fans and handicappers spoke of the “Juvenile Jinx.” So the thinking went, it was virtually impossible for any horse to win both the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and the Kentucky Derby (G1).

The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile ranks as North America’s season-defining championship for 2-year-old colts and geldings. The 1 116-mile race has traveled around the country since its inauguration in 1984 and is frequently won by early-maturing runners lacking the stamina and/or durability to succeed as 3-year-olds in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby.

Generally speaking, the “Juvenile Jinx” has been a sound theory. Many impressive Juvenile winners have indeed come up short on the first Saturday in May, including the sensational Arazi (eighth in 1992) and Horse of the Year Favorite Trick (eighth in 1997).

But pit enough high-quality juveniles against each other in an annual championship race, and you’re bound to come up with Kentucky Derby winners once in a while. During the first decade of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, future Derby champions Spend a Buck (1985), Alysheba (1987), and Sea Hero (1993) were all beaten in the Juvenile before making history under the Twin Spires.

Then in 2006-07, the jinx was broken. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile traveled to Churchill Downs, where an unheralded colt named Street Sense obliterated his rivals by a record-breaking 10 lengths. Six months later, he returned to Louisville and crushed the curse with a decisive rail-skimming triumph in the Kentucky Derby.

In the years since, the influence of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile has continued to grow. When Midshipman won the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the stakes-record time of 1:40.94, the last horse to cross the finish line was a diminutive gelding named Mine That Bird. The following year, Mine That Bird stunned the racing world with a 50-1 upset in the Run for the Roses.

Even more significantly, Nyquist emulated Street Sense by sweeping the Juvenile/Derby double in 2015-16, reiterating the importance of racing’s championship test for juveniles. Between 1984 and 2019, a span of 35 years, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile produced six winners of the Kentucky Derby, more than any other stakes race for two-year-olds.

By J. Keeler Johnson