By Richard Rosenblatt
In a 13-minute span on Saturday afternoon [Feb. 27], early Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality cruised to victory in the slop in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3), followed by Greatest Honour stamping himself a top Derby contender with a closing run to win the $300,000 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
Essential Quality’s long-awaited 3-year-old debutwas a smashing success on a rainy day in Arkansas. The 1 1/16-mile race had been postponed three times due to frigid weather and was run nearly two weeks later than originally scheduled.
No worries, trainer Brad Cox said before the race. He was right. Under Luis Saez, Essential Quality did not have the smoothest of trips at the start butsettled into fourth in a field of seven before making his winning move around the final turn.
The 2-year-old male champion and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner then seized the lead in the stretch and won by 4 ¼ lengths over Bob Baffert-trained Spielberg, who made a late move and finished ahead of Jackie’s Warrior.
Godolphin’s Essential Quality, now 4-for-4 for trainer Brad Cox, likely has one more prep race before heading to the Derby on May 1.
“He showed up and ran his race,’’ said a relieved Cox, who has two other Derby contenders in Madaloun and Caddo River. “It was somewhat of a relief to get this race over with. The delay of the race, the track condition, just a lot of obstacles to overcome.
“Good horses do overcome, but it doesn’t mean the trainer doesn’t worry. We just want to wrap him in bubble wrap and get to the next race.”
The win was worth Derby qualifying points of 10-4-2-1 to the first four finishers. Essential Quality now has 40 points, 12 behind stablemate Mandaloun, who is second with 52 points behind Greatest Honour [60 points after collecting 50 for Saturday’s win].
Down in South Florida, Greatest Honour was far back – about eight lengths heading into the far turn – in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth. But under Jose Ortiz, the bay colt made a huge move coming out of the final turn and seized controlfrom pacesetter Drain the Clock to win by 1 1/2lengths.
Like Essential Quality, Greatest Honour is a son of Tapit, among the leading stallions over the past dozen years. Trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey and owned by Courtlandt Farms, Greatest Honour has now won three in a row after a second and two thirds in his first three starts.
Greatest Honour will have his final prep before the Derby on March 27 in the Florida Derby (G1).
The Fountain of Youth awarded Derby qualifying points of 50-20-10-5 to the first four finishers, putting Greatest Honour atop the leaderboard at 60.
“I wasn’t real comfortable. I could see what was going on and I felt like if [Ortiz] got him in the clear then we could have a shot to make a run at him,’’ McGaughey said. “The horse that was second [Drain the Clock], when he did break clear I said, ‘Uh, oh.’ But he’s a really nice horse.”
$300,000 Fountain of Youth (G2)
The only time he’s won the Derby, McGaughey took the Florida path to Churchill Downs. Here he goes again with Greatest Honour, now the winner of the Holy Bull (G3) and Fountain of Youth.
In 2013, Orb won the Fountain of Youth before taking the Florida Derby and then the Kentucky Derby.
Greatest Honour has shown he just might be able to get the job done, too.
Sent off as the even-money favorite in a field of 10, Greatest Honour was eighth after three-quarters of a mile. Midway around the far turn, Ortiz swung his colt five wide at about the three-sixteenth pole and surged into the lead.
Winning time over a fast track was 1:44.02
Greatest Honour returned $4 for a $2 win bet. Drain the Clock, not yet nominated to the Triple Crown races, finished second and earned 20 Derby qualifying points. Papetu was third, followed by Tarantino, Jirafales, King’s Ovation, Prime Factor, Fire At Will, Tiz Tact Toe, and Sososubtle.
Ortiz break downs the race:
“He broke good, a bit slow like he always does, and I put him in the race. I tried to be as close as I could going to the backside and I got a good path behind Prime Factor. But when we hit the turn, I bumped the horse outside of me and lose my hind end a little bit and it was very hard to get him back going.
“He’s such a big horse with such a big stride. At the three-eighths pole I’m trying to get him going and I got a space on the inside, but I didn’t want to have to stop him again, so I decided to go wide and when he hit the clear, boom. He was there for me. Huge run.”
$750,000 Southwest Stakes (G3)
The Brad Cox Derby Express is rolling full steam ahead after the successful 3-year-old debut of Essential Quality.
Breaking from the rail, Essential Quality seemed a bit uncomfortable racing in close quarters at the start, but jockey Jose Ortiz decided to take his colt to the outside into the first turn. From there, he settled nicely into fourth place, with Jackie’s Warrior setting the pace, followed by Woodhouse and Saffa’s Day.
When the leaders hit the quarter pole, Essential Quality made his move and that was that.
Essential Quality, owned by Godolphin, covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:39.05 over a sloppy track. Spielberg, who got off to a slow start, finished second for trainer Bob Baffert. Jackie’s Warrior faded in the stretch as he did in the BC Juvenile and finished third.
“He’s got a lot of stamina,’’ Cox said of Essential Quality. “I think the further we go the better he’s going to get. I thought it was huge effort, it’s what we wanted to see. This is a really good group of horses and he showed up and responded really well.”
Saez, who finished first in the 2019 Derby with Maximum Security only to be disqualified for interference, is thrilled he’s likely to have another shot at the Run for the Roses.
“I’m so excited. I was very happy to be riding this horse. We were waiting a long time. What a talented horse,’’ he said. “We knew the speed was to our outside. The plan was to try to follow him (Jackie’s Warrior) the whole way. Everything came together … We came to the stretch just so easy. He switched leads and just took off. What a nice horse. He finished very strong and I still had a lot of horse.”
Woodhouse was fourth, followed by Last Samurai, Santa Cruiser, and Saffa’s Day.
$100,000 John Battaglia Memorial Stakes(Friday)
Hush of a Storm won the race 1 1/16-mile race over a Tapeta surface on Friday night at Turfway Park, giving him 10 Derby qualifying points and putting him on the road to Louisville.
Trained by Bill Morey and ridden by Santiago Gonzalez, the bay colt won by 1 ½ lengths over Like the King, who was a neck in front of even-money favorite Gretzky the Great.
Hush of a Storm, the 6-1 third choice, returned $15.40 to win. The bay colt came barreling down the stretch in mid-track and overtook Like the Kingand Gretzky the Great despite bearing in. There was a steward’s inquiry into the stretch run, but no changes were made.
Winning time over the synthetic surface was 1:44.