By Richard Rosenblatt
A perfect day at Saratoga Race Course: A huge crowd, a sunny day, a half-dozen Grade 1’s and champion Essential Quality winning the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (G1) by a hard-fought neck over Midnight Bourbon on Saturday.
On a day that defied the Spa’s reputation as the “Graveyard of Champions,” Essential Quality wanted no part of that history.
The 3-year-old gray owned by Godolphin, sent off at 1-2 odds, briefly stumbled out of post 2 under Luis Saez. But he righted himself quickly, followed closely behind pace-setter Midnight Bourbon and settled in just behind the leader (about three lengths back along the backstretch).
As the seven-horse field moves to the far turn, Essential Quality ($2.90) moved up, and when Midnight Bourbon hit the top of the stretch, Essential Quality had pulled even. Into the stretch, it was a relentless Essential Quality pulling ahead and holding off his rival.
“He broke well. We were hoping that he wouldn’t lose as much ground and have more of a ground-saving trip as opposed to the Jim Dandy,’’ said winning trainer Brad Cox. “Luis did a good job of recognizing that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of pace. He asked him to run out of there and established good position and didn’t let Midnight Bourbon get too far away up the backside.
“I was a little worried up the backside once he cleared up with softer fractions. He’s a tremendous horse. He’s a champion and he ran like one today.”
Fourth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) as the favorite after a rugged trip back on May 1, the son of Tapit has reeled off victories in the Belmont Stakes (G1), the Jim Dandy (G2) and now the Travers to improve his record to 8-for-9 and move into top contention for Horse of the Year. His earnings are now over $4.2 million.
Winning time for the 1 ¼ miles was 2:01.96.
Midnight Bourbon, runner-up in the Preakness (G1), and a non-finisher in the Haskell (G2) in July after being interfered with, nearly stumbling to the ground and throwing his rider, and Essential Quality dominated the race.
Miles D was third, followed by Keepmeinmind. King Fury, Masqueparade, and Dynamic One.
“He’s danced a lot of dances and shown up,’’ said Cox. “His lone defeat was the Kentucky Derby, where we felt he was right there in the mix. He’s done nothing wrong. We’re proud of what he’s accomplished this year and he’s a very good horse with a fantastic resume.”
Saez, who rode Maximum Security to a first-place finish in the 2019 Derby only find out after the race his horse had been disqualified for interference, is grateful to be aboard Essential Quality.
“To me, he’s the best horse, the horse of the year, and he deserves all the credit,’ said Saez, who is the leading rider at the Spa heading into the final week of the meet. “I’m a little sad about how much people talk about negative stuff about him, but you know that’s the game, he’s the best.
“You know they always have something to say, but he’s the best horse, I love how he is, and he’s the champion.”
Steve Asmussen, who trains Midnight Bourbon, was proud of his colt’s first race since the Haskell.
“I’m very proud of his effort. He’s a first-class horse that is getting better.”
Added Midnight Bourbon’s jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr.: “I got a perfect trip. I couldn’t ask for a better trip. The winner is way too good.”
Other favorites who won at the Spa on Saturday included Viadera in the Ballston Spa (G2), Gamine in the Ballerina (G1), Yaupon in the Forego (G1), Letruska in the Personal Ensign (G1), and Gufo in the Sword Dancer (G1). Jackie’s Warrior won the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) as the second choice over Life Is Good.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.