Essential Quality showed why he is considered the leading thoroughbred in the 3-year-old division on Saturday with an impressive win over Midnight Bourbon by just a neck in the152nd running of the Runhappy Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
With the win, Essential Quality notches his eighth win in nine career starts.
For trainer Brad Cox, it was his first Travers Stakes win, while jockey Luis Saez earned his second.
Saez was very happy with how Essential Quality performed in the race.
“It’s amazing, that’s my second Travers, and I’m so thankful to be here and be a part of it in this amazing race,” Saez said. “To me, he’s the best horse, the horse of the year, and he deserves all the credit.”
Coming into the race, all eyes were on two horses — Godolphin’s Essential Bourbon and Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon.
Sure, there were five other horses in the race, but for all intents and purposes, almost everyone expected it to be a two horse race for the $1.25 million prize money.
And, it was!
From the starting gate to the finish line 1-1/4 miles away, the beautiful bay Midnight Bourbon and the striking gray Essential Quality put on a show that will make the 2021 Midsummer Derby one to be remembered for a very long time.
Racing first and second almost the entire way, Midnight Bourbon, with Ricardo Santana Jr. riding, held the lead from the start, while Essential Quality, with Saez aboard, was content to follow the leader.
But coming out of the final turn and heading into the stretch, Saez urged his horse to pick it up a notch — and he did — and from there, the race was really on.
Side by side the two thoroughbreds battled down the stretch towards the finish line, with neither horse giving quarter.
In the end, as the roar of the crowd of 44,507 reached a deafening crescendo, Essential Quality had just a little extra, and hit the wire the winner by a neck. He stopped the clock at 2:01.96.
Midnight Bourbon was a valiant second, with Miles D third.
Cox, who won the 2020 Eclipse award for Best Trainer, was elated with his horse’s performance.
“He broke well,” a very emotional Cox said of his horse. “We were hoping that he wouldn’t lose as much ground and have more of a ground-saving trip as opposed to the Jim Dandy. Luis did a good job of recognizing that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of pace. He asked him to run out of there and established good position and didn’t let Midnight Bourbon get too far away up the backside.
“I was a little worried up the backside once he cleared up with softer fractions,’ he continued. “He’s a tremendous horse. He’s a champion and he ran like one today.”
With the victory, Cox joins a select group of trainers as he becomes just the third trainer to win the Travers Stakes and Whitney Stakes, which he won a few weeks ago with Knicks Go, during the same meet.
Essential Quality, who won the 2020 Eclipse Award as 2-Year Old Colt, strengthens his case for being the leader of the 3-year-old division in 2021. The Kentucky-bred son of Tapit-Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality now has eight wins in nine starts and career earnings of $4,215,144.
In addition, five of six of his wins came this year, with his only loss being the Kentucky Derby this past May, where he finished fourth. Of his six races in 2021, all were in graded stakes, with two being grade 1 wins, which included the Belmont Stakes.
“He’s danced a lot of dances and shown up,” Cox said. “His lone defeat was the Kentucky Derby, where we felt he was right there in the mix. He’s done nothing wrong. We’re proud of what he’s accomplished this year and he’s a very good horse with a fantastic resume.”
With all the horses ready to go, the bell sounded, the starting gate clanged open, and all seven horses stormed out onto the track.
As expected, Santana guided Midnight Bourbon out of gate 1 and straight for the lead, while behind him, Essential Quality bobbled a bit coming out of gate 2, then brushed up against Keepmeinmind, but it did not slow either of them down and Saez moved his horse into second, just to the outside of Midnight Bourbon.
Behind the leaders, Miles D took up the third spot, with Dynamic One in fourth, Masqueparade fifth, Keepmeinmind sixth, and King Fury seventh.
As they passed the wire for the first time, Midnight Bourbon came out a little, then followed the rail around the first turn, and maintained the lead down the backstretch.
Essential Quality also moved out passing the wire to stay outside of Midnight Bourbon, and stayed out on the two path going around the first turn, but maintaining his second position going into the backstretch.
Midnight Bourbons opened up his lead heading down the backstretch, while Essential Quality and the rest of the field held their positions. But, as they neared the far turn, Santana gave his horse a short breather, and Essential Quality and the rest of the field began to catch up to Midnight Bourbon a little.
As they turned for home, Midnight Bourbon moved out into the two-path as he entered the stretch, while Essential Quality came out three-wide and prepared to engage the race leader.
Behind them, Miles D, Keepmeinmind, and Dynamic One battled amongst themselves for third, while King Fury and Masqueparade took up the rear.
With all that going on, all the action was up front as the battle had been joined.
Midnight Bourbon fought hard to hold onto the lead, but Essential Quality just kept on coming. With Saez giving him a slight right-handed whip, Essential Quality took a slim lead near the three-sixteenths mark, while Santana gave Midnight Bourbon a slight left-handed whip to urge his mount to fight back.
With both riders strongly urging their mounts on, the two horses fought side by side, but at the wire it was Essential Quality who held on to get the win by a neck over Midnight Bourbon.
“I’m very proud of his effort, said Midnight Bourbon’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, who is still seeking his first Travers win. “He’s a first-class horse that is getting better.”
Five lengths back was Miss D, who held on by a neck for third over Keepmeinmind, who was fourth. Rounding out the field was King Fury in fifth, Masqueparade sixth, and Dynamic One seventh.
“He was third-best by a good margin, but we’ll take it,” trainer Chad Brown said of his horse, Miss D. “I was just talking to (my jockey) Flavien (Prat) about how pleased I was. Our plan was to try to give him a chance to win and if you can find Essential Quality early in the race, stay right next to him, and then test our horse.
“He was soundly defeated today but he tried all the way to the wire and got third,” Brown continued. “The two horses that went on to the wire were clearly better than this group today. We’ll re-group with our guy. He’s lightly-raced and looks like he has a bright future ahead of him. Hats off to the winner, he’s a true champion.”
Essential Quality, who won the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is now positioned to possibly make a run in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar if his connections choose to do so.
* According to NYRA.com, “Cox joined elite company by winning the Whitney and Travers with separate horses, as James G. Rowe, Jr. [St. Brideaux in the Whitney and Twenty Grand in the Travers] in 1931 and John M. Gaver, Sr. with Swing and Sway [Whitney] and Shut Out [Travers] in 1942 also pulled off the feat.
* With the win, Essential Quality paid $2.90, $2.30, and $2.10, while Midnight Bourbon paid $4.00 and $3.30 for second, and Miles D paid $4.90 for third.