SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Godolphin homebred Essential Quality continued to display his excellence with a superb performance in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers at Saratoga Race Course, picking up a fourth Grade 1 triumph.
Essential Quality, traveling in second position under meet-leading rider Luis Saez, was 3 ½ lengths off pacesetter Midnight Bourbon down the backstretch before inching his way closer to the front nearing the far turn. The pair engaged in a dramatic stretch battle, with the 2020 Champion 2-Year-Old coming out on the winning end by a neck and recording a 107 Beyer Speed Figure.
Winning dramatic stretch duels in prestigious races are nothing new for Essential Quality, who won the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 5 after battling with Hot Rod Charlie in the stretch. He arrived at the Runhappy Travers off a half-length win in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on July 30 at the Spa, fending off an inside rally from Keepmeinmind, who was fourth in the Travers.
Essential Quality became the first Champion 2-Year-Old to notch a Travers win since Street Sense in 2007 and joined Tiz the Law , Summer Bird , Birdstone , Point Given , Lemon Drop Kid  and Thunder Gulch  as horses to sweep the Belmont Stakes-Travers double. Additionally, he became the first horse since Arts and Letters in 1969 to win the Belmont, Jim Dandy and Travers.
Trainer Brad Cox said the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic is the ultimate goal but has not yet decided whether Essential Quality will race once beforehand.
“He looked great this morning. He’s in good shape,” Cox said. “[Godolphin USA President] Jimmy Bell and I spoke about that this morning, there’s no pressure to make a decision right now. We’ll just let the dust settle and enjoy this victory for a little bit. I think that’s the right thing to do. We’ll make a decision in a week or two weeks. The most important thing is watching him and how he trains.”
Through eight victories in nine lifetime starts, Essential Quality has displayed various tactics, having won from just off the pace in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland, as well as from far back in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he made up nine lengths to secure a victory.
“He’s a versatile horse,” Cox said. “He seems to show up regardless of the pace. He’s shown that he knows how to negotiate a trip and accept what’s thrown his way. He knows how to overcome things.”
Cox spoke volumes of this year’s 3-year-old crop and said it’s a testament to Essential Quality’s accomplishments.
“It’s very, very good, and that’s not just because we have two very good ones in Essential Quality and [Grade 1 Haskell Invitational winner] Mandaloun,” Cox said. “Horses like Hot Rod Charlie, Midnight Bourbon, Jackie’s Warrior and Keepmeinmind were all good horses that played a role as 2-year-olds last year and have been able to continue on at 3. Jackie’s Warrior and Essential Quality were both dual Grade 1 winners at two and three. It means a lot. Hopefully, we can keep marching forward and on to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Cox has been more involved in the Spa meet this season than he has in years past, which has paid dividends to the Louisville-born conditioner. Three weeks ago, Cox saddled Knicks Go to a victory in the Grade 1 Whitney.
“I’ve kind of been in and out of Saratoga in years past, but this year I’ve been here a good bit and it’s really grown on me,” Cox said. “Moving forward, I’d like to spend all of my summers here. Being here and doing well in big races, that makes you enjoy it. It’s a special place. Between the Travers and the Whitney, these are great accomplishments. It’s a lot of teamwork and we have a great team.
“I can see myself spending more time here in years to come,” Cox added. “It’s a great place, the whole town is all about racing. It’s a special place for sure.”
Essential Quality is out of the multiple stakes placed Elusive Quality mare Delightful Quality. He is a direct descendant of the influential broodmare La Troienne.
Cox potentially holds a strong hand for the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Essential Quality and Knicks Go, who breezed for the first time since his Whitney triumph on Friday morning. The four-time Grade 1-winning son of Paynter went an easy half-mile in 49.15 over the Oklahoma training track.
Knicks Go will target the Grade 3, $400,000 Lukas Classic on October 2 at Churchill Downs as his final prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“It was an incredible move, and I was proud of him,” Cox said. “I didn’t ask him to do much, but he did it the right way. We’ll keep him here until the first of September and go from there.”
Cox saddled Ten Strike Racing’s Whittington Park, a New York homebred, to a maiden special weight victory on Saturday at second asking. Third in his debut on August 1 at Saratoga, the son of Midnight Lute led the 6 ½-furlong race at every point of call, winning by 7 ½ lengths under Manny Franco. He registered a 69 Beyer for the win.
“We’ve always liked him. I had the opportunity to see him in Florida in March and he had a good physical,” Cox said. “We didn’t feel that we had him quite ready to win first time, but he really got something out of it. We added the blinkers and had a couple of good moves since.”
Photo: Essential Quality, (Joe Labozzetta)