By Mike Farrell
Essential Quality took another step on the road to Horse of the Year. Firenze Fire turned savage in the Forego (G1), and Bob Baffert came up smelling the roses on both coasts.
It was quite a weekend of stakes action, and there’s plenty more to come! Both Saratoga and Del Mar conclude their high-profile meets on Labor Day with a flurry of stakes races over the final weekend.
Saratoga serves up a pair of Grade 1s on Saturday: the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Flower Bowl for turf fillies and mares.
Two-year-old fillies are front and center in bicoastal Grade 1 stakes on Sunday: the Debutante at Del Mar and the Spinaway at Saratoga.
Monday is showcase day for the 2-year-old colts in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and the Hopeful (G1) at the Spa.
And then the summer racing season is over. As usual, it flew by. There were numerous highlights, but last weekend will go down as the most remarkable.
It was capped by the $1.25 million Travers (G1), the “Mid-Summer Derby” and another victory by Essential Quality. As usual, the gray colt did just enough to secure the win. This time the margin was only a neck over a very game Midnight Bourbon.
The Travers was the next chapter following the Jim Dandy (G2) earlier in the meet where Essential Quality prevailed by a half-length over Keepmeinmind.
When the ledger is tallied, the number of wins count far more than the margins of victory. In Essential Quality’s case, the record now stands at 5-for-6 in 2021 with the lone loss a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby (G1). Overall, last season’s juvenile champion is 8-for-9.
Horse of the Year is there for the taking, if Essential Quality runs the table through the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). He likely will race once more before heading to Del Mar for the Classic. That next engagement has not been determined.
“There’s no pressure to make a decision right now,” said trainer Brad Cox. “We’ll just let the dust settle and enjoy this victory for a little bit. I think that’s the right thing to do. We’ll make a decision in a week or two weeks. The most important thing is watching him, and how he trains.”
While Essential Quality captured the main event, Firenze Fire’s attempt to savage Yaupon, the eventual winner of the Forego (G1), provided the social-media buzz of the day.
We generally frown on biting during athletic competition. Just ask Mike Tyson about the time he made a sandwich of Evander Holyfield’s ear. Firenze Fire certainly lost points for poor sportsmanship.
Viewed in a different context, it was a tribute to the fighting spirit of the thoroughbred. Firenze Fire could not bend Yaupon to his will, and he was mad.
It is the will to win, and the fight (not necessarily the bite), that separates the victors from the also rans. That goes for horses … and humans.
Speaking of winning, there was Bob Baffert back in the spotlight last weekend with scores by Gamine in the Ballerina (G1) at Saratoga on Saturday and by Medina Spirit in the Shared Belief at Del Mar on Sunday.
The Shared Belief marked the reemergence of Medina Spirit for the first time since finishing third in the Preakness (G1) while his Kentucky Derby (G1) was clouded, and still unresolved, following a medication violation.
Since then, Baffert has morphed from the positive face of racing to the sport’s No. 1 problem child. A Hall of Fame trainer once welcomed anywhere in the world now finds fewer tracks rolling out the welcome mat.
“It’s a relief. A Shared Belief relief,” Baffert said, showing he hasn’t lost the ability to turn a phrase after Medina Spirit’s victory.
What Baffert has lost is credibility with a lengthy list of violations. In public, he adopts an Alfred E Newman “What, me worry?” posture while his legal team fights furiously to keep him in the game.
Bob is back … but for how long?
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.