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Blue Grass Preview: Essential Quality Set for Final Prep
Essential Quality winning the Southwest (Credit: Coady Photography)

Blue Grass Preview: Essential Quality Set for Final Prep

LEXINGTON, KY – A compact but strong field of nine 3-year-olds including Essential Quality will contest Saturday’s $800,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) on Day 2 of Keeneland’s 2021 Spring Meet.

The Blue Grass, which serves as a major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby (G1), offers 170 total Derby qualifying points with 100 going to the winner, 40 to the second place finisher, 20 to third place, and 10 points to fourth. The race will be one of three Derby prep races this weekend, sharing the spotlight with the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby (G1) at Santa Anita Park.

The clear star, Essential Quality seems loaded for his final prep before the Kentucky Derby. The undefeated Champion 2-year-old Colt made his 3-year-old debut a winning one last time out, dominating his rivals in the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park. He drew post 4 for this challenge and will have Luis Saez up for the ride once again.

Another graded stakes winner facing him is Keepmeinmind, who captured the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs as a juvenile. His 3-year-old debut did not go well, though, as he finished a well-beaten sixth in the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park. He’ll look to rebound in this spot when breaking from post 9 with David Cohen aboard.

Trainer Chad Brown sends Highly Motivated after a third-place effort in the Gotham Stakes (G3), his first start of the year. The Into Mischief colt’s biggest win came over this track as a 2-year-old when he won the Nyquist Stakes on Breeders’ Cup Friday. He’ll break from post 3 with regular rider Javier Castellano aboard once again.

The full field from the rail out: Hidden Stash, Untreated, Highly Motivated, Essential Quality, Rombauer, Leblon, Hush of a Storm, Sittin On Go, and Keepmeinmind.

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Top Choice

#4 Essential Quality – It’s very difficult to get past the heavy 3/5 favorite here, no matter how you analyze the race. Nearly all of his competitors have major question marks, but this guy seems to have none. This is still an important last prep race for him, though, as trainer Brad Cox does NOT want to see any hiccups in his final start before the big one. That happening would be very surprising, and even if it does, he could still be good enough to beat this group. He’ll likely head to Louisville as a co-favorite after this one’s over.

“It’s very rare for a horse to be able to be 4-for-4 and have different tactics,” Cox said. “He’s won from 3/4 all the way to 1 1/16 miles at the Grade 1 level. I just think it speaks volumes to actually how good he is and how much talent he has. We’re in a good spot with him. He’s just a very good horse.”

Horses to Use in Multi-Race Wagers

#2 Untreated – If you’re looking for an alternative to the favorite, then why not go with a totally new shooter? We know that Essential Quality is better than the rest of this field, but this one is still a bit unknown. After struggling in a maiden special weight sprint at Gulfstream Park, he shipped to Tampa Bay Downs and destroyed rivals in a maiden special weight route. That effort on Tampa Bay Derby Day turned a lot of heads and he lured Joel Rosario to ride in this spot, further adding to his intrigue. Look, we’re not saying he’s going to beat Essential Quality, but he’s at least a price option to use alongside the heavy favorite.

“We know he’s behind the 8 ball in terms of experience and seasoning, but he can run 1 1/4 miles,” said Barry Irwin of owner Team Valor. “The farther he goes, the more he likes it. He’s continuing to train well and we’re going to run him in here. If the horse was a speed horse, I wouldn’t do it. but a horse like this, a come-from-behind horse who can pick up horses, I feel it’s worth trying him here.”

#3 Highly Motivated – Brown won this race in 2018 with Good Magic, so it was no surprise to see him target this spot for Highly Motivated, who was impressive as a juvenile and won the Nyquist Stakes over this track. His 3-year-old debut was not great, though, as he finished a non-threatening third in the Gotham Stakes (G3). I expect him to move forward off of that effort here, just like Good Magic did. He’s the most logical alternative to the heavy favorite.

Exotic Plays

#9 Keepmeinmind – After his Rebel dud, it’s tough to think he can turn the tables on Essential Quality, especially after losing to him multiple times as a 2-year-old. Still, there’s reason for optimism, as he’d missed quite a bit of training time before the Rebel due to a winter storm in Arkansas, so he should be much more fit for this contest. He should show up with an improved effort in this spot.

“I like (the draw),” trainer Robertino Diodoro said. “I like being outside rather than inside; he’s a big horse.”

#1 Hidden Stash – There’s no doubt that he can hit the board in this spot, but that’s probably his ceiling. He has no excuse for losing the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) last time out, making him hard to play to win, but he’s a consistent horse who can be expected to make up ground in the stretch.

“That’s the second time I’ve drawn the 1 hole (with Hidden Stash),” trainer Vicki Oliver said. “I would have liked to have been in the middle or toward the outside, but it is what it is. We’ll have to take a look at (the past performances) and see how much speed is in there and how we’ll play the race.”

Party Crashers

#5 Rombauer – California horses are running extremely well in prep events across the country, which makes it hard to throw this guy completely out. Sure, he’s on the lower end when it comes to the California crop; however, he didn’t run too poorly when he came to Keeneland as a 2-year-old, finishing fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). It’s hard to think that he can win a race of this magnitude, but at the right price, playing him underneath wouldn’t be the worst idea.

“That is a good post,” said trainer Michael McCarthy. “I will be at Santa Anita Saturday and my assistant Justin Curran will be overseeing his preparation.”


#7 Hush of a Storm – This is probably going to end up being the wise guy horse after he won 3 straight at Turfway Park and scratched out of last weekend’s Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) as the second favorite in order to give this spot a try. However, this is a much different challenge, since those wins came over synthetic. It’s not like he has no shot here, but if he takes any extra money, he’ll be hard to play. He should be double digits, at the very least, before playing him.

“The 7 (post) is a good spot,” trainer Billy Morey said. “There is plenty of run to the first turn going a mile and 1/8.”

#8 Sittin On Go – At this point, it’s just really hard to believe he’ll show up with any kind of effort at all. His last 4 efforts were all beyond bad and this might be the toughest field he’s faced yet. It’s a shame that he lost his form so quickly after 2 solid wins as a 2-year-old.

“Outside again,” trainer Dale Romans said about the draw. “It is amazing he keeps drawing out there, but nine horses is a lot different than 12, so he should be OK. There is plenty of run into the first turn. I’ll let the jock decide (the strategy), but we will probably just (wait) and come running.”

#6 Leblon – This late entry will need to rebound after a poor effort against allowance company last time out at Oaklawn Park. You can’t blame his connections for wanting to take a shot in this spot, but he’ll be hard-pressed to make much of an impact.

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