Saratoga Springs

Interesting BC Classic matchup looms for Travers winner Essential Quality

Essential Quality and his Travers blanket head to the barn after the colt won the biggest race of the Saratoga meet on Saturday.
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Essential Quality and his Travers blanket head to the barn after the colt won the biggest race of the Saratoga meet on Saturday.

Knicks Go isn’t yesterday’s news. It just seemed like it.

His blanket of flowers from having won the Whitney on Aug. 7 was still hanging over the rail in front of his stall at trainer Brad Cox’s Saratoga Race Course barn on Sunday morning. The flowers are dried out and faded light brown now, like they were taken from Miss Havisham’s cob-webbed bedroom in “Great Expectations.”

A few stalls over, on the other hand, Essential Quality’s Travers blanket was bright red and white, fresh off his dramatic victory in front of a paid admission crowd of 44,507.

The expectation now — even though Knicks Go is also eligible for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, a race he won last year — is that we’ll see these stablemates populating stalls in the BC Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 6.

The 4-year-old Knicks Go is the top older dirt male in the country, and Essential Quality is the top 3-year-old male, so if both grays make it to the BC Classic, the matchup would be intriguing no matter who else shows up.

“It would be great,” Cox said. “That’s what racing needs, for the good horses to show up on big days. It would be a great matchup. They shouldn’t get in each other’s way. We know how Knicks Go likes to do it, and Essential’s going to make his run.

“I didn’t know this going in, but both of them has their own jock, so there’s no jocks having to make a decision or anything.”

Essential Quality came out of his grinding duel against Midnight Bourbon in good shape, Cox said, and the Godolphin colt nibbled away at his hay rack as Cox talked to reporters at 9 a.m.

The colt will stay in Saratoga until shortly after closing day Sept. 6 before shipping home to Kentucky.

The 2020 Eclipse Award winner’s 2021 resume includes victories in the Grade III Southwest, Grade II Blue Grass, Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy and $1.25 million Travers.

In typical fashion, Essential Quality and regular jockey Luis Saez did just what was required of them to win another big race, stalking a slow pace by Midnight Bourbon and passing him late in the Travers.

“I watched it late last night, and on the gallop-out he just threw his ears up like he does, then Midnight Bourbon kind of came to him again and he pinned his ears and dug back in,” Cox said. “It was an impressive win, to track that horse, never let him out of sight and run into that slow pace. Both those horses ran tremendous races and really fired down the lane. They were right around 23, 23-and-change for the final quarter [mile], so they were really running.

“Like Louie says, he always stays on when he has that target in front of him. Once he gets by that target, he’s content there, he doesn’t want to get too far away from him, and I think that’s just herd instinct. But he’s definitely a very intelligent horse who always seems to do enough, stays on, little bit of a grinder. Nothing super-flashy about his wins, but he gets it done. He’s always had that competitive spirit and toughness.”

Cox said there’s a chance Essential Quality, who was 4-5 on the morning line and bet down to 2-5 in the Travers, will train up to the Breeders’ Cup, instead of looking for a race between the Travers and Nov. 6.

“Let the dust settle and maybe revisit that in a week or so,” he said. “There’s a very good possibility we could train up to it, or use a race. But we’ll let him tell us. If we were to train up to the Breeders’ Cup, I would probably try to go out three or four days prior. No breezing over the track out there.”

By winning the Travers and Whitney at the same meet, Cox became the eighth trainer to do so, and also was just the third to achieve that double with two different horses.

In 1931, James Rowe Jr. won the Whitney with St. Brideaux and the Travers with Twenty Grand, and in 1942, John Gaver Sr. won the Whitney with Swing and Sway and the Travers with Shut Out.

“Those two races, the Whitney and the Travers, are as good as it gets for those horses in that division, bottom line. It’s a huge accomplishment, and I’m proud of the horses and our team. We’ve got a great staff, and clientele that are trusting us with great horses. It’s been a great summer, for sure.”

It’s also the first summer in which the 41-year-old Louisville, Kentucky native Cox, a former assistant to Dallas Stewart, has had a full barn for the duration of the meet.

The last few years, the 2020 Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer in North America has had a few stalls at the Spa, but mostly shipped in from his base in Kentucky.

“It was a great day of racing at Saratoga,” Cox said. “This is really the first summer I’ve been here, and it’s an unbelievable place. I love Saratoga. Best racing fans in the world, and it means a lot, just being here and having a fantastic season. It’s probably the most special place racing has. It’s an amazing place.

“Even in the Belmont, I feel like he’s [Essential Quality] New York’s horse. I really do feel like that, that New York loves this horse. It certainly feels like it to me, with him having won the two biggest races New York offers for 3-year-old colts. But the fans here all-around love the game, and it’s a tremendous atmosphere. That’s what Saratoga’s all about.”

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