The Brad Cox-trained colt has won all five of his career starts, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last fall and the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in April, tracking down Highly Motivated in the stretch to win the key prep race by a neck.
If Essential Quality wins his sixth straight race Saturday, he will become one of three horses (after Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist in 2016) to win both the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby a year later. Essential Quality can also halt some losing streaks for his connections. Godolphin Racing, who owns the top-flight colt, is 0 for 11 at the first leg of the Triple Crown, while his jockey, Luis Saez, is 0 for 7 in the big race, his best finish aboard Brody’s Cause (seventh) in 2016. Saez was also aboard Maximum Security in 2019 when that horse was disqualified in favor of Country House.
Plus, the race will start with Essential Quality breaking from post No. 14, a gate that hasn’t seen a winner since Carry Back in 1961.
“I think it’ll be a good spot,” Cox said this week. “He’s got good tactical speed that he’ll be able to get into a good position from there.”
Essential Quality is certainly fast enough. He is one of six horses in the field to earn a Brisnet final speed figure of at least 100 heading into this year’s Kentucky Derby, a trait found in 18 of 21 Derby winners since 2000.
He also satisfies both benchmarks of Jennie Rees’s final fraction theory, which emphasizes that how fast a horse finishes in its final prep is crucial — especially its speed over the last three-eighths of a mile. About 75 percent of Kentucky Derby winners since 1990 (23 of 31) have run the last three-eighths of a mile of their final Derby prep race in 38 seconds or less and also covered the final eighth of a mile in 13 seconds or less.
A vast majority of recent Derby winners (27 of 31, or 87 percent) met at least one of those criteria. Essential Quality checks both. He ran the last three-eighths of the Blue Grass in 36.3 seconds and the last eighth of a mile in 12 seconds flat.
The gray son of Tapit is also littered with classic bloodlines. Tapit, a three-time champion sire, has produced 88 graded stakes winners, 27 Grade 1 winners, eight division champions and six Breeders’ Cup champions. His sire, Pulpit, is the grandsire of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome. On Essential Quality’s dam side is speed galore. Elusive Quality, Essential Quality’s maternal grandsire, broke the track record for seven furlongs at Gulfstream in 1997, then a year later broke the world record for a mile on the turf. His progeny includes Smarty Jones (winner of the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and a second-place finisher in the Belmont Stakes) and Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion Roy H.
But Speed and stamina can only get you so far. The rest is up to Saez and a gray colt trying to make history.
“This is the race where you need more racing luck,” Cox told the Courier-Journal. “If we get the trip, we’re going to be very tough.”