‘I’m looking forward to first Saturday in May’ – Essential Quality all guts to stay unbeaten on Kentucky Derby trail

• Prep-race news with latest ante-post odds from British bookmakers

Horse Racing Essential Quality
Essential Quality (Luis Saez) just gets the better of Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes. Photo: Coady

By Nicholas Godfrey

7-2jf (price for Kentucky Derby) Essential Quality (Brad Cox/Luis Saez)
Keeneland (April 3): Blue Grass Stakes G2 $800,000, 1m1f, dirt
Sire: Tapit
Owner: Godolphin LLC
Time: 1m48.50s

Last year’s champion two-year-old Essential Quality will go to the Kentucky Derby as an unbeaten horse after just about getting the better of a prolonged stretch duel with Highly Motivated.

The Godolphin homebred’s talent is not in question but here he needed the heart to go with it in a determined effort against a stubborn foe as it was only in the final strides that he finally overcame him rival to score by a neck.

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Both principals were to the fore from the get-go, where Highly Motivated established a lead, pressed on his outside by the 1-2 favourite.

They drew well clear of the others, with Highly Motivated keeping the advantage in resolute fashion for most of a thrilling stretch drive until the game Essential Quality finally asserted. It was 5½ lengths back to the third, Rombauer; battle will be rejoined in four weeks’ time.

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• On the same card, the Maktoum filly Malathaat (Todd Pletcher/Joel Rosario) confirmed her Kentucky Oaks credentials with victory in the G1 Ashland in the famous blue-and-white silks of the late Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell operation.

Brad Cox (Essential Quality’s trainer): “Highly Motivated was travelling really well on the inside and Javier Castellano looked very comfortable. It looked like it was going to be tough to get by and he was extremely tough. He is a good horse, who has run good numbers and likes Keeneland, so we thought that he would be our main competition.
“Essential Quality needed a good, strong race today and we got that out of him, there’s no doubt about it. He is getting better all the time – not that he is bad or anything – but he is a colt who is maturing all the time mentally and physically. I thought he ran a huge race today and he is a tough horse.
“He has shown us an unbelievable amount of stamina. It’s the one thing I keep going back to, he never gets tired. When you breeze him, it doesn’t take a lot out of him. Luis said that he was a monster today and felt like he never really got to the bottom of the horse. I think the further, the better for him. I am very optimistic about the opportunity we are going to have in four weeks and I am looking forward to the first Saturday in May.”

Luis Saez (Essential Quality’s jockey): “When we came to the stretch, Javier’s horse was really fighting and I thought for a second that we weren’t going to get it but I always have a feeling with Essential Quality. He is a nice horse and, no matter how fast or slow the pace, he always wants to be the first on the wire. He came to the stretch, he fought and he got by. What a big heart this horse has. In that type of moment, we try to do anything and he finally gave me that last try. He is a fighting horse and always in a battle.”

Javier Castellano (Highly Motivated’s jockey): “He ran a huge race. I got beat, finished second, but I’m so proud of my horse and the way he did it today. Easy fractions on the lead, he galloped along – that’s the first time he did two turns. We tested him a little bit to see how far he could go and he did it. He tried with one of the best horses in the country.”

Kentucky Derby betting (Bet 365): 7-2 Concert Tour, Essential Quality, 13-2 Rock Your World, 8 Hot Rod Charlie, 10 Highly Motivated. 12 Bourbonic, 14 Greatest Honour, Known Agenda, 16 Dynamic One, Helium, Medina Spirit, Weyburn, 20 bar.

Santa Anita Derby: Rock Your World rolls into reckoning

13-2 Rock Your World (John Sadler/Umberto Rispoli)
Santa Anita (April 3): Santa Anita Derby G1 $750,000, 1m1f, dirt
Sire: Candy Ride
Owner: Hronis Racing and Talla Racing
Time: 1m49.17s

“Go big or go home!” was trainer John Sadler’s pre-race advice to Rock Your World’s jockey Umberto Rispoli.

Well, it’s fair to say he went big – and now they’re going to Kentucky after the son of Candy Ride gatecrashed the Classic scene with an all-the-way triumph in the west-coast’s biggest three-year-old race.

Moreover, Rock Your World won’t be anything like a forlorn hope, either. Having made his debut on New Year’s Day, his two previous runs were on turf but he plainly enjoyed this surface as he made the switch.

Despite being pressured on the lead, he drew away to win by 4¼ lengths over a good yardstick in Medina Spirit, who has danced every dance on the Kentucky Derby trail.

John Sadler (Rock Your World’s trainer): “We have been laying in the weeds. I thought it would be good to start this horse off on the turf, much like Omaha Beach, and develop. The plan was to run him a couple of times on the turf and now it was time to get the points – we gotta get the points to think about going to Kentucky. We knew we had to be either one or two today to have enough points to go.
“The post dictated our strategy. I saw Umberto in the paddock this morning at 8am and I told him ‘go big or go home!’ We had to get out of there with the scratch inside of us.  It worked out great and I’m very excited.”

John Velazquez (Medina Spirit’s jockey): “The horse ran well, but the winner took the lead on a fast track and kept running. My horse kept coming and kept coming but couldn’t catch up. He did have some left in the tank at the end and he kept coming, but the other horse got away pretty well and opened up again. It was too hard to catch up.”

Wood Memorial: Bourbonic a 72-1 shocker

14-1 Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher/Kendrick Carmouche)
Aqueduct (April 3): Wood Memorial G2 $750,000, 1m1f, dirt
Sire: Bernardini
Owner: Calumet Farm
Time: 1m54.49s

No disrespect intended but this was a weird one and no mistake. Normally when a longshot horse runs down his rivals like this after being detached at the back of the field, you can point to some kind of pace meltdown.

Not this time. Calumet Farm’s Bourbonic, at 72-1 dismissed as the longest price on the board, was last of nine, fully six lengths off the remainder of the field, until past halfway in New York’s foremost Kentucky Derby trial.

Indeed, he was still five lengths off the lead entering the final furlong, only for his furious late rally to nip his Todd Pletcher-trained stablemate Dynamic One by a head.

While those who raced to the fore were not involved in the finish – including high-profile Kentucky Derby types like Weyburn and Prevalence – it would be wrong to assume the winner benefited from a favourable pace set-up because there was no pace.

This was run at a dawdle – sectionals of 24.88s, 50.18s, 1m14.98s before a slow final time of 1m54.49s. Yet Bourbonic was able to close, while the favourite Risk Taking raced in seventh of nine and stayed put.

Either way, Pletcher – who has saddled more Kentucky Derby runners than anybody else in history – now has a couple more possibles for Churchill Downs alongside Florida Derby winner Known Agenda. He’s won twice, with Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017).

The trainer has now won six Wood Memorials as Bourbonic followed Eskendereya (2010), Gemologist (2012), Verrazano (2013), Outwork (2016) and Vino Rosso (2018).

Todd Pletcher (Bourbonic’s trainer): “We always felt this horse would handle added distance. He was able to get a perfect trip and sit back and make one late run. He was able to get there just in time. It was a big effort. To have any chance, I think the only way he could be successful was to stay back and make one late run; he doesn’t have any early speed.
“Sometimes the worst thing you can have is a hot hand in January and February. We were hoping something would come together and we always thought he had potential to step up. It was good to see him do it.”

Kendrick Carmouche (Bourbonic’s jockey): “Todd asked me what I was going to do and I told him I wouldn’t move. I was just going to sit, sit, sit, sit and hopefully get out the last quarter of a mile. I knew he would go on from there. My horse was in a good stride. Each pole I was picking them up one by one without even asking.”

• Visit the Kentucky Derby website and the Keeneland website

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