Essential Quality worked five furlongs in company at Churchill Downs on May 29 in preparation for the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. Churchill Downs/Coady Photography.

Champion Essential Quality Has Final Work in Preparation for Belmont Stakes

By Alicia Hughes

Trainer Brad Cox didn’t want to put Godolphin’s champion Essential Quality on a van to New York this week concerned he may have left something on table back at his Louisville base. 

So, when he sent the son of Tapit out for his final major work in preparation for the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 5, Cox made sure the gray colt had a partner that would give his fitness the litmus test needed heading into next Saturday’s 1 ½-miles classic. 

Paired with stablemate and graded stakes winner Bonny South, Essential Quality was suitably pushed during his time on the Churchill Downs oval May 29 as the duo worked five furlongs in a bullet :59.40 – fastest of 43 moves at the distance beneath the Twin Spires on Saturday. 

With a spit of rain in the air, Essential Quality and Bonny South broke off in tandem at the half mile pole with the former traveling on the outside through splits of :12.20 :23.80 and :46.60 and galloping out six furlongs in 1:12.80. The work was the third for Essential Quality since finishing fourth as the betting favorite in the May 1 Kentucky Derby (G1) and Cox wanted to take no chances that the reigning juvenile male champion had the necessary bottom to tackle the 12-furlong test that looms.

“They both worked heads up and he’s doing fantastic,” Cox said of Essential Quality. “Just wanted to keep him honest. The first work after the Derby he went a half in like :50 and he’ll work easy enough by himself. We didn’t want to go into the Belmont thinking ‘Ah well, we didn’t get accomplished what we were looking for.’ But we definitely got a good work under him today. We were looking for something in that neighborhood – five-eighths in about a minute.

“He traveled really well. The track was good and tight, it was quick, and he coasted right over it.”

The Kentucky Derby marked the first defeat for Essential Quality in six career starts, but Cox still believes the 2020 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner was the best horse in the first leg of the Triple Crown given that he traveled 68 feet further than first-place finisher Medina Spirit, according to Trakus, after getting bumped at the start.

If he can best a Belmont Stakes field that is slated to include Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Rombauer – who was third behind Essential Quality in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) – Louisiana Derby (G2) victor Hot Rod Charlie, and fellow Godolphin color bearer Rebel’s Romance, it would also validate Cox’s long-held belief that the marathon classic was most suited to his charge’s running style.

Cox has said he declared Essential Quality a future Belmont Stakes winner after watching the colt work for the first time and, while the Louisville native says some of that was in jest, the Godolphin homebred’s bloodlines and his ability to sit a stalking trip are both tailor-made for success over Big Sandy. 

“I’ve probably said that about some other horses as well, this time it’s playing out,” Cox laughed. “I was obviously joking but he is a Tapit (sire of three Belmont Stakes winners) and Tapit has had a lot of success in the Belmont. I was hoping he was a Derby horse, and he was a Derby horse, he just didn’t have the right trip. He’s a good colt and he’s always showed a lot of stamina. That’s the one thing you have to find. In order to get 1 ½ miles, they have to have a lot of stamina.

“We know he’s a Grade 1 horse, he’s a champion 2-year-old, but we still have a lot of work to do because we need to make him a Grade 1 winner at 3. And the Belmont obviously is a fantastic race. It would be huge for this horse.”

Bonny South will be joining Essential Quality in leaving for Belmont on May 31 as the Juddmonte homebred is set to start in the $500,000 Ogden Phipps Stakes, one of seven Grade 1 races on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The daughter of Munnings captured the Doubledogdare Stakes (G3) at Keeneland on April 16 and has finished worse than second just twice in nine career starts.

“She was the workmate for Essential Quality obviously and she was right there with him the whole way,” Cox said. “They were head and head throughout.”

Cox holds a massive hand for the 1 1/16-miles Ogden Phipps as he is also has multiple Grade 1 winner Shedaresthedevil set for that test. The winner of the 2020 Kentucky Oaks (G1) also worked at Churchill Downs Saturday morning, covering five furlongs in 1:00.60 – her third move since capturing the La Troienne Stakes (G1) on April 30.

Juddmonte’s Mandaloun, who crossed the wire second in the Kentucky Derby and could be elevated to the victory should Medina Spirit be disqualified for testing positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone, breezed five furlongs solo in 1:00.20 Saturday in preparation for the $150,000 TVG Pegasus Stakes June 13 at Monmouth Park.

“We feel like that’s the best plan to get him to the (G1) Haskell (on July 17),” Cox said.

Undefeated Australasia breezed in company with multiple Grade 2 winner Travel Column (four furlongs in :48.80), the latter of whom is pointed to the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard for Cox.