Essential Quality with Luis Saez up wins the Toyota Bluegrass for trainer Brad Cox and owner Godolphin Stable, 2021 Keeneland Spring Meet

Essential Quality with Luis Saez up wins the Toyota Bluegrass for trainer Brad Cox and owner Godolphin Stable, 2021 Keeneland Spring Meet

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Kentucky Derby found its early favorite in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes winner, but an intriguing new contender will head to Louisville from the West Coast after a Santa Anita Derby upset and a wild Wood Memorial longshot in a busy Derby prep day in advance of the May 1 Run For the Roses.

Essential Quality, a Godolphin Stables homebred trained by Louisville native Brad Cox, ran down Highly Motivated in the final strides to remain perfect with a victory in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

The 2-year-old champion won for the fifth time in five starts and likely cemented his status as the Derby favorite. He finished the final advance wagering period as the 4-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

Ridden by Luis Saez, who was aboard Maximum Security when he crossed the finish line first but was disqualified in 2019, Essential Quality has collected three of his five wins at Keeneland.

Javier Castellano put Highly Motivated on the lead out of the starting gate with Essential Quality tracking just to his outside through fractions of :23.83, :48.21 and 1:12.08. On the far turn, Essential Quality inched up to close the gap, setting the stage for the stretch duel that was decided in the final yards. Essential Quality finished the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.5 and paid $3, 2.20, 2.10.

“He had to dig in today. It was probably what he needed,” Cox said of Essential Quality. “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.”

It was also a big race for the runner-up, who was making his first trip around two turns.

“He ran a huge race,” Castellano said. “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.”

Asked by NBC after the race about the fact that no trainer born in Louisville has ever won the Kentucky Derby, Cox said, “Time for that to change.”

If all goes well, he’ll get his shot.

SANTA ANITA DERBY

Bob Baffert has lost his first-stringer when it comes to Kentucky Derby contenders, but the 6-time Derby winners could not produce a winner in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, despite saddling favored Medina Spirit.

But making his first start on dirt for trainer John Sadler, Rock Your World turned in the day’s most impressive prep performance, coasting to a 4-length win as a 5-1 choice to book his ticket for Churchill Downs.

Ridden by Umberto Rispoli, a two-time champion in Italy who will ride in the Kentucky Derby for the first time, Rock Your World led at every call.

While racing on turf in his first two trips is an unusual preparation, Sadler wanted to avoid Life is Good and other Baffert competition, but now may have the best of the West coast heading to Churchill Downs.

“I think (Medina Spirit) ran well,” Baffert said. “The winner just was the best horse today. When I saw him on the lead, he’s bred to go a mile and a half, and was doing it pretty easy. … It’s still pretty wide open and hopefully we can improve off of this. He ran well today, but the winner was the best horse.”

Sadler acknowledged his unusual run-up to the Derby prep.

“I'd been thinking, when this winter started, there's a lot of different ways to hunt," he said. "And I chose to lay in the weeds."

Now he’s out in the open. Kosta Hronis, who owns Rock Your World, along with his brother Pete and Michael Talla, called the win, “A dream come true. What Accelerate did – the Breeders’ Cup is the Breeders’ Cup. But everybody talks about the Derby, and we’re honored to be part of it. We’ll travel there, the two families will travel, and we’ll try to steal one there also.”

Sadler has sent out four Derby starters. None have finished in the money, with the best finish from Corby, who was sixth in 1993. He might be bringing his best shot to Louisville this year, however, with one of the few true speed horses in the race.

“We’re thrilled. We knew he was a top horse, and he showed it today,” Sadler said. “I told Umberto in the paddock this morning, ‘Go big or go home.’ … I got teary eyed (watching him run for the wire). It was so great seeing our fans out here cheering us again. It’s been a long 13 months.”

WOOD MEMORIAL

Todd Pletcher is used to delivering victories with short-priced favorites. On Saturday at Aqueduct, he celebrated a Wood Memorial exacta topped by 72-1 shot Bourbonic, who rallied from last to beat the Pletcher-trained Dynamic One.

Bourbonic, a Calumet Farm colt who paid $146.50, is now 3-1-0 in six starts, but has won three of his past four on the dirt. He was ridden Saturday by Kendrick Carmouche.

“We were just taking a shot with Bourbonic,” Pletcher said. “Mr. (Brad) Kelley of Calumet said, ‘Can you guys please fine a find a points race for him to give him one try.’ He was based in New York, I felt like this was a logical place to give it try. Kendrick gave him a great ride. He took him back and made one late run and finished strong.”

And Pletcher, who has saddled more Kentucky Derby starters than any other trainer, likely has a couple more.

What he didn’t have Saturday was a winning ticket for his two colts taking the Exacta, which paid $906.

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