Essential Quality Edges Highly Motivated In A Blue Grass Thriller

Champion Essential Quality had to dig deep to maintain his unblemished record, but the Godolphin homebred colt by Tapit did just that at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, wearing down the front-running Highly Motivated in the final yards to win the Grade 2, $800,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes by a neck as the 1-2 favorite.

Ridden by Luis Saez for trainer Brad Cox, Essential Quality ran the 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:48.50 and paid $3 to his backers for his fifth career victory in as many starts.

Highly Motivated, an Into Mischief colt trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Javier Castellano, fell just short on a track where he scored his only previous stakes victory in the Nyquist Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup undercard last Nov. 6, the same day Essential Quality locked up his Eclipse Awrad as champion 2-year-old male with a victory in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Highly Motivated was sent off as the 7-2 second choice in the betting.

It was 5 1/2 lengths back to the third-place finisher, Rombauer, a California invader from Michael McCarthy’s barn who was 24-1. Hidden Stash, the G2 Tampa Bay Derby runner-up, finished fourth at 18-1. He was followed across the finish by Keepmeinmind, third behind Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup. Sittin On Go, Hush of a Stormn, Unbreated and Leblon completed the order of finish in the field of nine.

The top four finishers in the Blue Grass received 100-40-20-10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby, to be run on May 1 at Churchill Downs. No horse has exited the Blue Grass to win the Kentucky Derby since Blue Grass runner-up Street Sense won the roses in 2007. The last Blue Grass winner to win the Kentucky Derby was Strike the Gold in 1991. Essential Quality’s connections obviously hope that streak will end in four weeks’ time.

Updated Kentucky Derby leaderboard.

The Blue Grass set up as a virtual match race between the the two favorites, who had each run once this year: Essential Quality won the G3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 27 and Highly Motivated finished a troubled third in the G3 Gotham around one turn at Aqueduct on March 6.

Highly Motivated secured the early lead and Essential Quality raced just to his outside throughout. Highly Motivated carved out fractions of :23.83, :48.21 and 1:12.08 for the first six furlongs, when Saez turned up the heat and moved Essential Quality closer to the lead. The top pair was well clear of Rombauer when they straightened away into the stretch.

Highly Motivated wasn’t finished, however, clinging to a half-length advantage at the furlong pole after a mile in 1:35.97. But Saez kept asking Essential Quality for more, and the gray colt kept to his task, putting his nose in front in the final sixteenth.

Post-race quotes:

Brad Cox (winning trainer of Essential Quality)

“It’s a tremendous feeling. He had to dig in today. It was probably what he needed. It was good for him to get a good test today He did everything easy enough in his last race. I was proud of what he was able to overcome today. Big effort.”

“I was happy where we were (turning for home). I could tell (with) the horse on the inside (Highly Motivated), Javier (Castellano) had horse, and we really had to work to get by him. The horse on the inside (Highly Motivated) ran a huge race. Both of them really duked it out the whole way. It set up for both of them, and they both responded well. That was a good race four weeks out (before the Kentucky Derby-G1). Four weeks from today. Hopefully we’re ready.”

Luis Saez (winning rider)

“That other horse was fighting, and I thought we weren’t going to get him. But I always had faith in Essential Quality. He’s a nice horse No matter how fast or slow the pace, he always wants to be first at the wire.”

Javier Castellano (rider of runner-up Highly Motivated)

“He ran a huge race. I’m very satisfied the way he did it today. I got beat, finished second, but I’m so proud of my horse and the way he did it today. Easy fractions on the lead, he galloped along – that’s the first time he did two turns. We tested him a little bit to see how far he could go and he did it. He tried with one of the best horses in the country and I give all the credit to the winner. But I would never complain with my horse and the way he did it.”

Whit Beckman (assistant to Chad Brown, trainer of Highly Motivated)

“That was just a tremendous run he put in. He ran so well and you could tell he just did not want to get beat. When one is trying that hard and you could feel the disappointment. I wasn’t confident being on the front end in a big race like this. But Javier got there and my confidence was with Javi and his decisions.”

Florent Geroux (rider of third-place finisher Rombauer)

“I am very happy with his effort today. The two horses in front of him are very nice and we ran a very good effort.”

The post Essential Quality Edges Highly Motivated In A Blue Grass Thriller appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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