In a heart-pounding showdown of Triple Crown alumni, Belmont S. (G1) hero Essential Quality edged past Preakness S. (G1) runner-up Midnight Bourbon to win the $1.25 million Travers S. (G1) on Saturday at Saratoga.
Favored at 2-5 off a narrow triumph in Saratoga’s Jim Dandy S. (G2), Essential Quality was widely expected to add the historic “Midsummer Derby” to his glowing resume. But the champion two-year-old male of 2020 needed every ounce of his speed, stamina, grit, and determination to get the job done in a driving finish.
Seven horses went to post in the 1 1/4-mile Travers, and Essential Quality got away in second place despite bobbling at the start. The race appeared essentially paceless on paper, and indeed, a pedestrian tempo unfolded as Midnight Bourbon dashed to an unchallenged lead and carved out increasingly slow splits of :24.18, :48.96, and 1:14.49. Jockey Luis Saez, guiding Essential Quality, was quick to capitalize and place Essential Quality closer to the early lead than usual.
“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,” winning trainer Brad Cox told the New York Racing Association. “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.”
The modest pace turned the Travers into a match race, with Essential Quality ranging up to challenge Midnight Bourbon around the final turn. The pace intensified sharply at that juncture, with the mile elapsing in 1:38.81, and the acceleration continued down the homestretch. Midnight Bourbon—with plenty left to offer—was tenacious on the front end. But Essential Quality always appeared to have the winning momentum, gradually forging past to score by a neck.
“He’s a tremendous horse,” continued Cox. “He’s a champion and he ran like one today.”
Essential Quality and Midnight Bourbon pulled five lengths clear of distant third-place finisher Miles D, with Keepmeinmind, King Fury, Masqueparade, and Dynamic One trailing the field. The large gap between the top two and the rest can be attributed to a blazing finish down the homestretch; the winning time was 2:01.96, which translated to a sensational final quarter mile in :23.15.
A Godolphin homebred, Essential Quality has been almost unstoppable since his debut late last summer. The gray son of Tapit has rattled off eight wins from nine starts, with his lone defeat coming courtesy of a wide trip in the Kentucky Derby (G1). Along the way, Essential Quality has accumulated seven graded wins, four Grade 1 wins, and earnings of $3,545,144.
“When you go to the Belmont at the mile and a half, to a mile and an eighth (in the Jim Dandy) to a mile and a quarter, hats off to the way they brought him into this race in good form,” said Godolphin USA President Jimmy Bell. “Luis Saez might be the hottest jockey in the country. We’re just very fortunate and blessed to be a part of this team.”
By sweeping the Belmont and the Travers, Essential Quality is staking a serious claim for Horse of the Year honors. Few horses have displayed his level of talent and consistency this season, so Essential Quality is shaping up as a key contender for the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Del Mar. Should Essential Quality prevail in the year-end championship, he’ll become only the second horse to complete the Travers/Classic double, following Arrogate in 2016.