In terms of today's methods of preparing Thoroughbreds for the spring classics, Essential Quality has gained about as much experience in his five starts before this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) as any horse could expect.
With horses no longer building toward the Derby through a long series of races at 2 and 3, it's entirely possible to see a horse enter the 1 1/4-mile test who hasn't faced challenges like an off-track, different pace scenarios, or travel. Besides winning all five of his career starts, Godolphin homebred Essential Quality has picked up a wealth of experience.
Essential Quality has raced on fast tracks in four of his starts but in the Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 27 at Oaklawn Park, the son of Tapit handled a sloppy track as he rated in fourth early before taking command off the final turn and drawing away to a 4 1/4-length victory. For me that effort was especially impressive in that Essential Quality started from the rail on a day the inside lanes appeared to be a bog. Essential Quality willingly was guided out into the four path by regular rider Luis Saez for both turns where he found the off going to his liking.
In his five races beginning with a debut maiden win on Derby Day 2020--the first Saturday in September at Churchill Downs--Essential Quality has shown an ability to adjust his running style to fit the race. He rallied from nine lengths back to win the TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (G1) but in winning the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and last year's Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1), he dueled with the early leader. As noted earlier, he rallied from fourth in the Southwest.
"Every race has been different," said trainer Brad Cox. "The first race he was sprinting and he was tracking, taking dirt from horses. He went through a tight spot down the lane to win (at six furlongs) going away with a big gallop out. In the Breeders' Futurity, he was up close with just that one horse, then he kicked clear down the lane and had a huge gallop out.
"In the Breeders' Cup, they obviously got away from him with a fast pace up front. He just couldn't keep up early. He was wide around both turns then circled the field and got up in the short stretch at Keeneland--the mile-and-a-sixteenth is a short stretch--and once again an impressive gallop out.
"Then in the Southwest, he was able to sit close to a moderate pace and just kind of sit in a great spot in the mud then kicked down the lane. Then he had a very similar trip in the Blue Grass, with a fast track.
While there's probably no preparing for a 20-horse Derby field, Essential Quality did start in the 14-horse Juvenile.
Essential Quality has thrived in making four of his five starts and doing most of his training in Kentucky but trainer Cox did make sure the colt out of Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality, hit the road for one start--his Southwest Stakes score. Of course the good news for Essential Quality is he won't need to build on that experience in the Derby as he'll stay at home for his first start at Churchill since a debut four-length win last September.
Cox said Essential Quality's adaptability to those different experiences, changing pace scenarios, off tracks, etc., should be a strength in the Derby.
"He's obviously able to adapt to the pace. If it's hot, he can set off of it and come running. Or if it's moderate, he can be closer up on it and still finish," Cox said. "He's very adaptable, and that's exactly what you want to see with a horse in the Kentucky Derby as far as I'm concerned."
As five races go, Essential Quality has seen a lot ... and shown a lot.