By Neil Monnery

Blue Grass Stakes Picks: Can any horse stop Essential Quality?

By Neil Monnery
Luis Saez has the ride of the odds-on favorite Essential Quality in the Grade II Blue Grass
Luis Saez has the ride of the odds-on favorite Essential Quality in the Grade II Blue Grass

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The $800,000 Grade II Blue Grass Stakes is one of the biggest races in the Road to the Kentucky Derby. A field of nine are set to take to the starting gate to round-off Saturday's action at Keeneland.

As part of our Keeneland Handicapping Challenge - this race has been previewed by both our in-house handicapper and our turf-man. You can find their thoughts below along with our Race Card...

Keeneland Race 11 18:35 ET

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Sean's take...

At first glance, the G2 Blue Grass appears to be another coronation for last year’s 2-Year-Old Champion Essential Quality (#4). This horse is a perfect 4-for-4 in his career after picking up right where he left off as a juvenile in his 3-year-old debut in the G3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park, which he won easily by 4 ¼ lengths. Indeed everything appears to be smooth sailing for Essential Quality, who is meeting a less-than-imposing bunch in the Blue Grass, however I do have some concerns. For one, Essential Quality isn’t all that much faster than his competition, and he’s coming off very good trips in his recent races. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward in his second start of 2021, however he’s going to be an awfully short price and I don’t believe he’s a lock.

I actually prefer Highly Motivated (#3) in this race. This horse has earned speed figures that can rival Essential Quality, and I thought he ran better than it looks in his seasonal bow when he stumbled at the start of the G3 Gotham at Aqueduct but ran on well to get third. This horse exploded in one start at Keeneland last year, an effort that was vastly better than anything else he showed as a juvenile, and if he shows similar improvement here he can absolutely give the favorite a run for his money. Also consider the complete lack of early speed in the Blue Grass, which Highly Motivated should be able to take full advantage of. It may seem as though he’s more of an off-the-pace type, but with a clean break I’m expecting him to be on the front end setting comfortable splits. If that scenario unfolds he’s going to be a very likely winner at two or three times the price of Essential Quality.

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J.N's Take...

I could spend copious amounts of time delineating why this year’s edition of the Blue Grass Stakes (G1) is going to be won by Godolphin’s homebred, Essential Quality #4.

The ashen gray, trained by Brad Cox has all the talent in the world, and his style as a 2-geared power runner continues to be my top Derby pick. He is going to bring the “Boys in Blue,” and His Highness Sheik Mohammed that coveted trophy that has remained empty all these years—The Kentucky Derby.

I look at this race at Keeneland as another freshening (as were his recent works), and it will be the opportunity for Cox, a rising conditioner in all of the divisions, to assess his strategy for Louisville. There is no one, I mean no one, in this race that can beat this colt. They will try… but it will be to no avail.

I was thinking about Cox and the expansion of his stable, especially as I vote in the weekly NTRA Poll. Realize he has in his arsenal, Monomoy Girl, Aunt Pearl, Knicks Go, Shedaresthedevil, and on and on and on… The stable is littered with progressive talent that includes female and male runners across dirt and turf. His triangle of the Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and Churchill, also includes entering races at Gulfstream, NYRA, SoCal, and any other venue that has a bunch of horses running around a track.

Cox makes everyone better because he has built a strong team under him. He is a student of the game, and has been one since he used to cut class and head over to Churchill Downs to place bets as a kid.

Studying angles and anticipation, when it comes to this Tapit colt, is part of his milieu. That also includes trusting a capable pilot. That is the other aspect that makes this horse so potent… his ability in the hands of someone like Luis Saez. This jockey can adapt his mount to almost any situation. Saez’s rise to the top of the jockey ranks in North America, now including a Saudi Cup and Dubai Cup set of wins, did not happen overnight. It took years of study of his craft. I would argue that what happened to him in the 2019 Derby might actually have worked to his advantage because he came through it with a new perspective about surfaces, trainers, and his assignments. His work ethic, already strong, became even more so. Derby business unfinished.

Those are some of the reasons why Essential Quality #4 is a single in the Blue Grass Stakes (G1), and beyond, as he marches to a Derby win for his connections.

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