Being a champion doesn’t mean being without flaws. It doesn’t mean that every moment is a peak one or that every performance goes down as the kind that sends the competition scurrying in fear.
What often defines the horses who are the class of their division is their ability to somehow win out even when the outcome has every reason to go sideways. The $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) at Saratoga Race Course on July 31 presented Eclipse Award-winner Essential Quality any number of excuses his connections could have cashed in on but, instead, the Godolphin homebred ended up adding to his reputation as his generation’s leader.
What Essential Quality lacked in style points on Saturday, the son of Tapit made up for in sheer grit. After losing ground around both turns in the 1 1/8-miles test, the gray colt resolutely fought past Keepmeinmind in deep stretch to win the Jim Dandy Stakes by half a length in his first start since capturing the Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 5.
Where the margin of victory was a modest one for a horse whose resume dwarfed that of his four challengers, the determination Essential Quality showed to keep an upset bid at bay showed why he has only lost once in his career. Despite the compact field, the Brad Cox-trainee was never able to save any ground out of post No. 5.
As jockey Luis Saez began advancing his mount around the final turn, he was carried out even further by Weyburn to his inside. Keepmeinmind, meanwhile, was putting in his best run along the rail and hooked up with Essential Quality at the sixteenth pole as Masqueparade gave way between those two.
The oft-proclaimed “Graveyard of Champions” would spare the reigning juvenile male as Essential Quality edged clear late to stamp himself the expected favorite for next month’s $1.25 million Travers Stakes (G1).
“The really good horses just show up and find a way to get things done and he has seemed to do that every start,” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA. “Consistency has been his hallmark and it was a battle down the stretch. It was probably good for him, which is easier to say after the race than when they’re at the sixteenth pole. He shows that determination, that class and that grit.
“He was a little wide but he found a way and overcame whatever he needed to do to get the job done. That’s the mark of a really good horse that when things aren’t always their way, they find a way.”
Essential Quality has routinely found a way to topple his classmates.
Since taking divisional honors for a 2-year-old campaign that saw him annex the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the steel-colored colt has won four of five starts this season including a victory in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) in April that saw him engage in a similarly gritty battle with runner-up Highly Motivated.
His only blemish came when he ran fourth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) – an outing that saw him travel 68 feet more than first-place finisher Medina Spirit according to Trakus. When Essential Quality returned in the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes, he again put his mettle on display by outfighting pacesetter Hot Rod Charlie to give Cox his first classic triumph.
“Today reminded me a lot of the Blue Grass,” Cox said. “Even though we turned for home we were right there, but it took a while to get past (Highly Motivated). He’s able to dig in, fight and move on. He’s not the flashiest horse and Luis works on him. That’s just him.
“There was a lot of ground lost today. Luis (Saez) obviously had to work to win. He got something out of it, I do think that. I think he’s carrying a little more weight now than he was leading up to the Derby or Belmont. I think this was a good tightener for him, four weeks out (from the Travers).”
Sent off as the 2-5 favorite, Essential Quality rated clear on the outside in fourth as Dr Jack broke sharp from his rail post and cut fractions of :23.81 and :47.41 over the fast main track. Masqueparade and Weyburn took up prominent positions as the field turned for home and the pacesetter retreated, but Saez said he knew he had plenty to work with for the stretch drive en route to covering the distance in 1:49.92.
“At the half-mile, I saw everyone was very comfortable so it was time to start moving,” Saez said. “He gave me a kick. We came to the top of the stretch and he just took off. I saw (Keepmeinmind), but I had a lot of horse and I knew he was going to finish. The plan today was not to take too much away from him. He always fights and he always wants to win.”
Essential Quality returned $2.80 for a $2 win wager. The win marked a second straight and third overall Jim Dandy win for Godolphin, whose royal blue colors scored last year with Mystic Guide as well as with Alpha in 2012.
Masqueparade finished third, 2 1/4 lengths behind Keepmeinmind, and was followed under the wire by Weyburn and Dr Jack.
The win elevated Essential Quality’s record to seven victories from eight starts with earnings of $3,545,144.
“Overall, he’s a very determined horse,” Cox said. “He has the heart of a champion. He’s a good horse, he stays on. Galloping out, it was like it took nothing out of him.”