Kentucky Derby: favourite Essential Quality solid in slop while Greatest Honour rolls home at Gulfstream

• Prep race news plus latest prices generally available with British-based bookmakers

Horse Racing Essential Quality
Essential Quality (Luis Saez) wins Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Photo: Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography

UPADTE, APRIL 4: ‘I’m looking forward to first Saturday in May’ – Essential Quality all guts to stay unbeaten

By Nicholas Godfrey

8-1f (price for the Kentucky Derby) Essential Quality (Brad Cox/Luis Saez)
Oaklawn Park (Feb 27): Southwest Stakes G3 $750,000, 1m½f, dirt
Sire: Tapit
Owner: Godolphin LLC
Time: 1m45.48s
Likely target: unspecified

A sloppy track, a layoff and a wide trip and a bit too keen down the backside: if ever there was a time to beat Essential Quality, it was probably here.

But they couldn’t, as last year’s two-year-old champion extended his unbeaten record to four with a 4¼-length victory over a fair yardstick in Bob Baffert’s Spielberg, thereby confirming his position at the head of the Kentucky Derby ante-post market with British bookmakers.

What is more, although Essential Quality was sent off a shade of odds-on for this seasonal debut, this $750,000 contest offered no obvious easy pickings – witness the identity of the third, none other than dual G1 winner Jackie’s Warrior, who started favourite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and got a nice time on the lead here.

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Essential Quality wasn’t as far back as usual but jockey Luis Saez angled him off the rail for running room. He took command at the head of the stretch before rolling away. You couldn’t ask for a lot more on a comeback effort – especially as we also now know he can act on an ‘off’ track.

Brad Cox (trainer): “Luis put him in a good position. I was little nervous when I saw the 48s, but our horse ranged up at the half-mile pole in a nice comfortable way. He showed up and ran his race. It was somewhat of a relief to get this race over with. The delay of the race, the track condition, just a lot of obstacles to overcome. Good horses do overcome, but it doesn’t mean the trainer doesn’t worry. We just want to wrap him in bubble wrap, try to get one more race into him and then hopefully the Kentucky Derby.”

Luis Saez (jockey): “What a talented horse. We knew the speed was to our outside. The plan was to try to follow him [Jackie’s Warrior] the whole way. Everything came together. He broke pretty well and at the five-eighths pole he took the bridle and was really pulling me, but I was waiting, just trying to wait with him. We came to the stretch just so easy. He switched leads and just took off. What a nice horse. He finished very strong and I still had a lot of horse.”

Kentucky Derby betting

Bet365: 8 Essential Quality, 10 Greatest Honour, Life Is Good, 12 Caddo River, Concert Tour, 16 Keepmeinmind, Medina Spirit, Prevalence, Risk Taking, 20 Hot Rod Charlie, Mandaloun, 25 bar.

Fountain of Youth: Greatest Honour looks good again

14-1 Greatest Honour (Shug McGaughey/Jose Ortiz)
Gulfstream Park (Feb 27): Fountain of Youth G2 $300,000, 1m½f, dirt
Sire: Tapit
Owner: Courtlandt Farms
Time: 1m44.02s
Likely target: Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park, March 27)

Another impressive performance from long-striding Greatest Honour, who followed up last month’s Holy Bull victory with more of the same in the main prep for the Florida Derby.

There was a lot to like about this – not least because the son of Tapit looked in serious trouble towards the rear with potential traffic problems at the far turn as front-running Drain The Clock got away with a tepid pace.

But the turbo kicked in down the stretch and he ended up scoring a shade cosily by a length and a half. Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Fire At Will faded to eighth.

Given that extra distance and a stronger pace can only assist Greatest Honour, he must be regarded as a leading Kentucky Derby contender.

Shug McGaughey (trainer): “I wasn’t real comfortable. The horse that was second [Drain the Clock], when he did break clear I said, ‘Uh, oh.’ But, he’s a really nice horse. The pace wasn’t that fast today, I don’t think, but he was able to overcome it.
“He’s won twice down here now in stakes doing what he doesn’t want to do, and that’s a mile and a sixteenth. Like Jose said, I’m glad these mile and a sixteenth [races] are behind us. We’ll be looking forward to getting him stretched out. Hopefully as we keep going longer he’ll keep improving. The farther the better for him.
“He does cover a lot of ground. I don’t know that he’s really that quick, as much as he just covers so much ground and he can get to horses so quick.”

Jose Ortiz (jockey): “When we hit the turn I bumped the horse outside of me and lose my hind end a little bit and it was very hard to get him back going. He’s such a big horse with such a big stride. At the three-eighths pole I’m trying to get him going and I got a space on the inside but I didn’t want to have to stop him again, so I decided to go wide and when he hit the clear, boom. He was there for me. Huge run.”

Florida Derby next for allowance winner Known Agenda

25-1 Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher/Irad Ortiz)
Gulfstream Park (Feb 26): allowance optional claimer $47,000, 1m1f, dirt
Sire: Curlin
Owner: St Elias Stable
Time: 1m50.47s
Likely target: Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park, March 27)

A runaway 11-length victory for Known Agenda, sent off 1-2 favourite on this drop back into allowance company after a couple of OK efforts in graded stakes when he was compromised by slow breaks.

The blinkers were on here, and no mistake was made as the son of Curlin rated off a solid early pace before easing to the lead four wide on the far turn and then clearing away under a confident Ortiz.

Runner-up Top Gun Tommy made life easier for the winner by veering out to the centre of the racecourse in the stretch but he was already losing the argument. The Florida Derby, over the same course and distance, beckons for the winner.

Todd Pletcher (trainer): “Johnny (Velazquez) recommended blinkers last time. We just needed to get him a little more focused. We know he’s got a lot of talent. He’s shown it in the mornings and hints of it in the afternoon. We’re just trying to get him a little more consistent. It looks like today the blinkers helped. He got into the race a little bit more and won impressively in the end.”

• Visit the Kentucky Derby website and the Gulfstream Park website

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