​Essential Quality headlines G1 Runhappy Travers field

August 25, 2021

Reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox has already secured a memorable meet at historic Saratoga Race Course and will be looking to accomplish a feat that has not been achieved in 79 years when he sends out ultra-consistent Godolphin homebred Essential Quality in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers at the Spa.

The 152nd running of the Runhappy Travers – for 3-year-olds contesting the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles, is slated as Race 12 on the packed 13-race card that features seven graded stakes among six Grade 1 contests. First post is set for 11:35 a.m.

For the third consecutive year, FOX will air the Runhappy Travers as the centerpiece of a 90-minute telecast beginning at 5 p.m. The networks of FOX and FOX Sports will air 7 1/2 total hours of live racing and analysis on Runhappy Travers Day, with coverage scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. on FS1. 

Cox, who has saddled Essential Quality to seven wins in eight starts, including three Grade 1 scores, won one of the most prestigious races for older horses at the Saratoga meet when Knicks Go posted a gate-to-wire triumph in the Grade 1 Whitney on August 7. The Kentucky-born conditioner can now become just the third trainer all-time and first since John M. Gaver, Sr. in 1942 to win the Travers and Whitney in the same year with different horses.

Essential Quality offers his trainer a good opportunity to join that list, as the Champion 2-Year-Old drew post 2 with regular rider Luis Saez aboard in being installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite. 

“I feel like he’s as good as he’s ever been,” Cox said. “If we run our race, we’ll be tough. There’s six other good colts in there and we still have to play our game. If we do, I think we’ll be a big factor.”

The gray Tapit colt was undefeated in three 2020 starts, racking up wins in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity in October at Keeneland before returning a month later to the same track to win the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. 

After posting back-to-back wins to start his sophomore campaign on the Kentucky Derby trail – capturing the Grade 3 Southwest at 1 1/16 miles in February at Oaklawn Park and the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 Blue Grass in April at Keeneland, Essential Quality ran his only non-winning race with a competitive fourth in the “Run for the Roses” on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. 

Undeterred, Essential Quality overcame Hot Rod Charlie’s blistering fractions to run down his rival in the 1 1/2-mile Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 5 – giving Cox his first win in a Classic – and followed that effort, which netted a personal-best 109 Beyer Speed Figure, with a half-length win over Travers-rival Keepmeinmind in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy going 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga on July 31 in the local Travers prep. 

“He’s sharp, mentally. He’s sharper this race than going into the Jim Dandy,” Cox said. “My plan all along was to have him peak in this spot. Our goal since the Kentucky Derby was to have him at his best Travers Day and from a mental and physical standpoint, I feel he’s right where we want him.

“I think he’s a classic-distance horse,” Cox added. “He’s proven that already. I like the post. Hopefully, with a good trip, we’ll get the job done on Saturday.”

Essential Quality has already amassed a field-high $3.5 million in earnings and will team with a familiar face, as Saez – the meet’s leading rider – has been aboard for all eight of his previous starts.

“He fits him real well,” Cox said. “Luis is riding him with a lot of confidence. He thinks the world of him. He’s been able to breeze him his last two works up here and he’s super excited about the opportunity on Saturday. I don’t give Luis many instructions with this horse. It’s just ‘do your thing’ and it tends to work out.” 

Cox’s chase for history includes trying to join Gaver, Sr., who won the 1942 Travers with Shut Out and the Whitney with Swing and Sway, and James G. Rowe, Jr., who won the Travers with Twenty Grand and Whitney with St. Brideaux in 1931.

Keepmeinmind will attempt to thwart that bid for history, earning another opportunity to oppose Essential Quality. Owned by Cypress Creek Equine, Arnold Bennewith and Spendthrift Farm, the son of Laoban ran a hard-charging second to the Runhappy Travers morning-line favorite in the Breeders’ Futurity and ran third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The duo met up twice more in the spring, when Keepmeinmind finished fifth in the Blue Grass and seventh in the Kentucky Derby.

The Robertino Diodoro trainee competed in the Triple Crown’s second leg, running fourth in the Preakness in May at Pimlico, before earning additional black type with a third-place Grade 3 Ohio Derby performance in June at Thistledown. Keepmeinmind matched his career-best 97 Beyer for closing on Essential Quality in the Jim Dandy last month, finishing second, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of fellow Travers foe Masqueparade.

Listed at 6-1, Keepmeinmind will have the services of Joel Rosario, who rode him for the first time in the Jim Dandy, from post 3.

“He’s getting better and better,” Diodoro said. “The horse is overdue and he deserves a win. We definitely think the extra distance will help him big time and it’s a huge plus having Rosario on the horse for the second time.” 

Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon, the runner-up to Rombauer in the Preakness, has not raced since clipping heels with Hot Rod Charlie and unseating rider Paco Lopez in the Grade 1 Haskell in July at Monmouth Park.

The son of Tiznow, who started his sophomore campaign with a win in the Grade 3 Lecomte in January at Fair Grounds, will look for a better trip in his first Saratoga appearance. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who set the all-time wins record for a North American thoroughbred conditioner earlier this month with a big Whitney Day at Saratoga, will look to add another milestone at the famous track in seeking his first Travers score. 

Ricardo Santana, Jr. will be in the irons for Midnight Bourbon [9-2] from the inside post.

“He’s a big horse and time should benefit him a bunch as he gets bigger and stronger and more mature,” said David Fiske, bloodstock advisor to Winchell Thoroughbreds. “He’ll have to break well but I should expect to see him on or near the lead.”

FTGGG Racing’s Masqueparade bested King Fury by a half length in the Ohio Derby, extending his winning streak to three, before finishing third in a Jim Dandy contest that will see the trifecta rematch in the Travers.

The Upstart colt’s top three speed figures in his seven-race career have come in his last three starts, starting with an optional claiming victory in May at Churchill before graduating to stakes company. After showing an affinity for Saratoga last out, Masqueparade will stretch out to 10 furlongs for the first time for trainer Al Stall, Jr.

Stall, Jr. said Masqueparade, who drew post 6 with Miguel Mena aboard, will be looking for a better trip after leaving from post 2 in the five-horse Jim Dandy, with Dr Jack [to his inside] and Weyburn [outside] possibly putting undue pressure on his charge.

“I love the draw. It’s completely different than the Jim Dandy draw,” Stall, Jr. said. “We’re very happy with that. Being on the outside, we can chase some speed. If there’s no speed, we can lay very close. He can be more comfortable. In the Jim Dandy, he was trapped inside between speed horses, so we couldn’t get anything done because they were shuffling us back and we were last on the backside. Now he can float away from there and see how things go. He’s got good natural speed, so I really like where we are. I think he deserves a chance.”

Stall, Jr. will be saddling his first Travers starter and is looking for the personal Whitney-Travers double, with Blame having won the 2010 Whitney.

Mena, who has been riding predominantly at Ellis Park and Indiana Grand Race Course, has been aboard for all of Masqueparade’s starts and will travel to the Spa on Saturday. Masqueparade is listed at 8-1.

Three Chimneys Farm’s King Fury, runner-up in the Ohio Derby, trained at Saratoga through an imposed quarantine due to a positive case of Equine Herpesvirus-1 in their barn, causing him to miss the Grade 2 Jim Dandy and instead return in the Grade 1 Saratoga Derby Invitational on August 7, where he finished 10th after a wide trip in his turf debut.

“He came out of it fine. He just got hung wide on the second turn,” trainer Kenny McPeek said. “I really feel like he needed a run. It was going to be a couple of months between races otherwise. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to run in the Jim Dandy, but he will be prepared for this.”

King Fury, a son of Hall of Famer Curlin, started his juvenile year with high expectations as a $950,000 purchase at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton New York Select Yearling Sale across the street from the Spa. After notching a win in the Street Sense in October at Churchill, King Fury made the grade with his 2 3/4-length score in the Grade 3 Lexington going 1 1/16 miles over a sloppy and sealed Keeneland track in April.

His previous start on dirt saw him rally from last-of-9 to get second in the Ohio Derby, and McPeek said a better trip on the fast track could have made the difference. 

“I think he should have won. He got shuffled back at one point during the race and I think if that hadn’t happened, he wins handily,” McPeek said. “He’s a very good horse and he’s going to relish a mile and a quarter.”

Jose Ortiz, aboard for the Saratoga Derby Invitational, will return to ride King Fury [15-1 odds] from post 7.

Repole Stable, Phipps Stable and St. Elias Stable’s Dynamic One – second in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by Resorts World Casino in April at Aqueduct – showed his affinity for the Saratoga track last out, rallying from last-of-seven to close strong, besting Miles D by 1 3/4 lengths in the Curlin on July 30 at Saratoga for his first stakes victory.

Dynamic One, trained by Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, rebounded from an 18th-place finish in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby to garner a personal-best 97 Beyer in the Curlin. The Union Rags colt did not break his maiden until fourth asking in March at the Big A but enters with momentum as Pletcher seeks his third Travers score.

“He obviously didn’t fire in the Kentucky Derby, but his maiden races were pretty fast,” Pletcher said. “He showed he belonged in the Wood. We were happy with the way he was training going into the Curlin, that appears to be his most professional race so far so hopefully he’s going into his best.”

Irad Ortiz, Jr. will ride Dynamic One [post 4, 6-1].

The Travers is one of the few stakes to elude four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown, who will send out his 12th all-time starter in this race with Peter Brant and Robert LaPenta’s Miles D, who handled the jump to stakes company with a runner-up effort in the Curlin.

The son of Hall of Famer Curlin has improved his Beyer Speed Figures in each of his three starts, including a 95 last out when running 1 3/4 lengths back to Dynamic One in his Saratoga bow.

Miles D [post 5, 12-1 odds] will pick up jockey Flavien Prat’s services, with the rider looking to extend his success in the division aboard multiple horses. Prat guided Rombauer to victory in the Grade 1 Preakness and piloted Hot Rod Charlie to a close second behind fellow Travers-contender Essential Quality in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, earning a placing in all three legs of the Triple Crown, as he was aboard for Hot Rod Charlie’s third-place Grade 1 Kentucky Derby finish.  

“He’s obviously a bit of a longshot in the race, so he’s going to have to step up,” Brown said. “I’m thankful to have a horse in the race and hopefully he runs the race of his life and will be right there.”

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