In the days leading up to the 147th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby (G1), US Racing is profiling all the contenders. The 1 ¼-mile Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs is May 1 and is the first leg of the Triple Crown. All profiles will be updated with post positions, odds, and jockeys following the draw on Tuesday, April 27.
By Ed McNamara
Unlike some other highly rated 3-year-olds, this undefeated colt has stayed healthy and kept getting better. Life Is Good and Greatest Honour are sidelined with ankle problems, and Concert Tour’s reputation took a big hit in the Arkansas Derby.
Essential Quality improved his Equibase speed figure in each of his four races since he broke his maiden last September. Yet because no race is scrutinized and overanalyzed like the Kentucky Derby 2021, many handicappers question whether he can repeat Justify’s 2018 feat of winning the Derby while unbeaten. Even though Essential Quality won a tough fight in the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass Stakes, immediately doubts were expressed.
He showed courage by edging front-runner Highly Motivated by a neck. Essential Quality was bumped at the start and stalked fractions slow enough (48.21-second half-mile, 1:12.08 for 6 furlongs) that the leader should have been able to hang on. Yet the heavy favorite overcame adversity and edged away in the final yards to win by a neck.
Skeptics suggested that the race may have taken too much out of Essential Quality. They wondered whether not winning by daylight might mean the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles are too far. Yet sometimes a hard race toughens a horse and moves him forward. We’ll find out the answers May 1.
His elite trainer, Brad Cox, knows that having the Derby favorite is the “good kind of pressure.” He’s upbeat about his chances.
“He showed a lot of grit and determination and a will to win,” Cox said five days after the Blue Grass. “He’s got a lot of fight about him, and I was glad he was able to come out on the right end. And he came out of it in good order.”
Essential Quality has done everything right in five starts, displaying excellence and versatility — one front-running win, two by stalking, two coming from behind. His world-class sire, Tapit, never has produced a Derby winner. Essential Quality’s owner, Godolphin’s Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, doesn’t have one after more than 20 years of trying. This could be the colt who ends those streaks.
“We got him to Churchill and everything’s going the right way,” Cox said. “We’re very happy with how he came out of the race, and on to the Derby.”
Post position: TBD
Trainer: Brad Cox
Jockey: Luis Saez
Career record: 5-5-0
Career earnings: $2,265,144
Derby qualifying points: 140 (1st)
Best Equibase speed figure: 109
Pedigree: Tapit-Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality
Running style: Stalker
Notes: Worked 5 furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Churchill Downs on April 17, fourth fastest of 40 at the distance … Cox, last year’s Eclipse Award winner, grew up a few blocks from Churchill. His father took him there for the first time when he was “5 or 6.” He lives and breathes racing, acknowledging it’s a career requiring obsessive attention to achieve maximum results. He never has run a horse in the Derby … Saez, one of the country’s top riders, never has won it even though he finished first in 2019. After a 22-minute stewards’ inquiry, Maximum Security was disqualified for interference, the first on-track DQ in Derby history … Dubai-based Godolphin Racing is named for the Godolphin Arabian (1724-53), one of the three foundation sires of the modern thoroughbred.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.