SARATOGA SPRINGS — Simple competence can be underrated.
Essential Quality’s race record, on the other hand, cannot.
Despite a wide trip all the way around the track, the Godolphin colt and jockey Luis Saez did what they had to do to win the Grade II Jim Dandy as the 2-5 betting favorite at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
The grinding stretch drive and winning margin of a half-length over Keepmeinmind may not turn heads, but Essential Quality ran farther than the mile-and-an-eighth Jim Dandy distance, based on the wide trip, and demonstrated again what made him a champion last year and makes him the current leader of the 3-year-old colt division this year: leg power, and will power.
Also, the tough work he experienced on Saturday — witnessed by a crowd of announced paid admission at 36,840 on a comfortably sunny day — should set him up well for the Travers on Aug. 28.
“Overall, he showed he’s a very determined horse with the heart of a champion,” trainer Brad Cox said. “This reminded me a lot of the Blue Grass. He’s able to dig in and fight and continue on. He’s not the flashiest horse, he doesn’t finish up with a hand ride, Luis works on him, but that’s just him.”
“The good horses find a way to get things done, and he’s seemed to have done that nearly every time for every start,” Godolphin racing manager Jimmy Bell said. “Consistency has been his hallmark. That was a battle down the stretch, and I think it was probably good for him. It’s always easier to say that after the race than when they’re at the sixteenth pole. But he shows that determination, that class, that grit, Luis rides him with confidence, and this was a hard-fought race.”
With the win, Essential Quality has won seven of eight career starts, having finished a length behind Medina Spirit in fourth at the Kentucky Derby.
Since then, he has won the Belmont Stakes by a length and quarter and the Jim Dandy.
Essential Quality has run in graded stakes company in every start of his career except his maiden win by four lengths last September.
“I’d say he’s … the most accomplished 3-year-old in the country,” Cox said with a laugh, when asked if Essential Quality was the best colt in the country. “I’m not going to brag about my own horse. I think he ran a winning race in the Kentucky Derby, his lone defeat of his career.
“He’s a damn good colt.”
In the Jim Dandy, Essential Quality was at least four paths wide of the inside rail almost all the way around the track, including the far turn, where Saez revved him up for a run to the front.
Long shot Dr Jack had led the field through the quarter-mile in 23.81 seconds and the half-mile in 47.41, with Masqueparade and Weyburn closely in tow.
As they fanned off the second turn, with Essential Quality the farthest outside, Keepmeinmind and jockey Joel Rosario worked out a ground-saving trip on the rail and dug in for the stretch drive.
Keepmeinmind, who was seventh in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness, made a resolute bid for the win, but Essential Quality was simply better.
“I knew they were going to slow the pace down, so my tactic was to break and be right there,” Saez said. “At the half-mile, I saw everyone was very comfortable, so it was time to start moving. He gave me a kick. We came to the top of the stretch and he just took off.
“I saw him [Keepmeinmind], but I had a lot of horse and I knew he was going to finish. The plan today was not to take too much away from him. He always fights and he always wants to win.”
“It looked like he was always in the back, but he broke really sharp today,” Rosario said. “I just tried to ride him from there and save a little bit for the end. He kept on going and going, but the horse on the outside, he couldn’t hold him.”
“There were some anxious moments down the lane; I don’t know if I want to use the word ‘worried,'” Cox said with a laugh.
Cox had the option of training Essential Quality up to the Travers from the Belmont while skipping the Jim Dandy, but he wanted to get a race over the track, for one thing.
“He’s going to get more out of this than he would working him in the morning,” Cox said. “I’m really glad we were able to get this in him as a tightener and a prep for the Travers.
“He’s blown up up here, in regards to how he looks physically. He’s put on weight, muscle, [he’s] happy, so hopefully we can see more of the same these next four weeks, he gets some foundation out of this race in regards to fitness. This is a demanding track, and he was able to get it done.”
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