Essential Quality needed nearly the entire stretch, but the classy gray colt would not be denied in Saturday’s $800,000 Blue Grass S. (G2) at Keeneland, wearing down Highly Motivated to prevail by a neck.
The unbeaten champion may have wrapped up Kentucky Derby favoritism with the determined victory.
“It’s a tremendous feeling, he had to dig in today,” trainer Brad Cox said. “It was probably what he needed. It was good for him to get a good test today He did everything easy enough in his last race. I was proud of what he was able to overcome today. Big effort.”
After opening the year with a 4 1/4-length victory in the Feb. 27 Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park, Essential Quality improved his record to five-for-five.
“That other horse was fighting, and I thought we weren’t going to get him,” regular rider Luis Saez said. “But I always had faith in Essential Quality. He’s a nice horse. No matter how fast or slow the pace, he always wants to be first at the wire.”
A Godolphin homebred Tapit colt, Essential Quality also captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland last fall. He opened his racing career with a four-length maiden special weight win at Churchill Downs in early September.
Essential Quality tracked in second as Highly Motivated sprinted to the fore at the break, establishing fractions in :23.83, :48.21, and 1:12.08 while up by about a half-length. The pacesetter was still clinging to a short lead in midstretch, but Essential Quality kept plugging away and gained the upperhand approaching the wire.
Off as the 1-2 favorite, Essential Quality completed the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:48.50.
The Blue Grass is a major Kentucky Derby qualifier, awarding points on a 100-40-20-10 scale, and Highly Motivated stamped his ticket with the commendable performance.
“He ran a huge race,” Javier Castellano said of the runner-up. “I’m very satisfied the way he did it today. 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 and I give all the credit to the winner. But I would never complain with my horse and the way he did it.”
Off as the 7-2 second choice, Highly Motivated held second by 5 1/2 lengths over 24-1 Rombauer, who never made an impact after stalking the pace in third all the way. Hidden Stash came next in fourth, and Keepmeinmind, Sittin On Go, Hush of a Storm, Untreated, and Leblon completed the order.
Essential Quality was named champion two-year-old male over the winter. The Kentucky-bred is out of the multiple stakes-placed Elusive Quality mare Delightful Quality, a half-sister to 2005 champion two-year-old filly, Folklore.