Triple Crown 2021 Proves its Quality

With the Belmont Stakes still relatively fresh in people’s minds, here are my thoughts on the race, the Triple Crown, and especially Essential Quality. ~ Steve Haskin

Triple Crown 2021 Proves its Quality

By Steve Haskin

There are two questions regarding the 2021 Triple Crown: how will it be remembered and how do we hope it will be remembered? The first question cannot be answered in full until the Medina Spirit/Bob Baffert mess is resolved. We are all aware that Medina Spirit’s betamethasone positive, whether it is determined it was administered by injection or ointment, has left a stain on the Run for the Roses that precipitated a two-year ban for Baffert by Churchill Downs stewards. So the man who has become the face of the Kentucky Derby with seven victories and is almost as recognizable as the twin spires as of now will not be seen at the Downs until 2024, some three months after his 71st birthday.

We saw some compelling human interest stories, from Gail Rice and Christine Whitman and their sale and purchase of the $1,000 colt with the obscure pedigree who won the Derby to small-time owners and breeders John and Diane Fradkin, who wound up with a Preakness winner from an unraced mare whose dam they purchased as a yearling for $10,500 and who never finished in the money in four claiming races. It is a family that goes back several generations of New Jersey breeding.

The repercussions from the Kentucky Derby positive blood test sadly will be felt for awhile, as we wade through a morass of litigation before we find out if Medina Spirit will be stripped of his Derby victory, which would tarnish the race even further considering most people believe the colt earned the victory on his own.

Now let’s take the optimistic path of what we hope will be remembered. Looking down the road after the chaos has subsided, I believe, or hope, what we will remember most is Essential Quality boosting the reputation of this year’s crop of 3-year-olds and the quality of the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes in such exciting and impressive fashion.This group of sophomores, considered by many as subpar or mediocre at best, especially after the injury to Life is Good, took on a whole new look following the exceptional performance by Essential Quality, as well as Hot Rod Charlie, and the lofty speed figures they earned. The Belmont also gave us a sense of continuity, as the two horses who battled to the wire were the same two horses who battled to the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile seven months earlier. And both horses won prestigious Derby preps (Blue Grass Stakes and Louisiana Derby) in between.

If Medina Spirit is disqualified and runner-up Mandaloun is declared the winner, at least the Juddmonte colt, who went into the Kentucky Derby off a dismal effort in the Louisiana Derby, proved his performance at Churchill Downs was the real Mandaloun by overcoming a terrible trip in this past Sunday’s Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park, winning in gutsy fashion.

With Essential Quality, the Belmont was not just an impressive performance by a very talented colt; this was the champion 2-year-old, who had lost only one race in his career. And many believe he was the best horse in that race. Not only did Essential Quality get mugged at the start of the Kentucky Derby, costing him valuable early position, he was hung out four-wide on both turns, which forced him to run 68 feet farther than the victorious Medina Spirit.

It’s not as if Essential Quality ran much better in the Belmont than Hot Rod Charlie, who many felt actually ran a better race fighting on the lead with Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World through torrid early fractions and continuing to battle the length of the stretch, while finishing 11 lengths ahead of Preakness winner Rombauer in third. What made this race so memorable for Essential Quality was the fact that he showed once again, even going a mile and a half, that he is machine-like in his ability to adjust his running style according to the pace. It is extremely rare to see a horse display such adaptability race after race, as if he knows exactly where he should be. Of course, credit has to go to jockey Luis Saez, but very few horses will allow themselves to be so pliable in the hands of its rider.

Let’s look at his career starts. In his debut going six furlongs, the opening quarter was run in a scorching :21 2/5 and he took back 7 ½ lengths before drawing off to a four-length victory. In his two-turn debut, the grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity, they crawled the opening half in :48 4/5 and three-quarters in 1:13 2/5 and he adjusted by pressing the pace from the start before again drawing off to a comfortable score. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile they flew the opening fractions in :45 1/5 and 1:10 2/5 and he dropped nine lengths off the pace before running down Hot Rod Charlie. We’ll skip the Southwest Stakes because there was no way to judge the pace on such a sloppy track. But even then he stayed within two to three lengths of the leaders before drawing away to win by 4 ¼ lengths. In the Blue Grass Stakes, the pace was slow with a half in :48 1/5 and three-quarters in 1:12, and he again adjusted by pressing the front-running Highly Motivated every step of the way before wearing him down in the final yards. Then in the Belmont Stakes, they went the opening quarter in an outrageous :22 3/5 (a full second faster than Secretariat) and half in :46 2/5 (only a fifth slower than Secretariat), and he dropped seven lengths off the pace before running down a gutsy Hot Rod Charlie to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

This is what I meant by machine-like. It’s as if he is programmed to put himself in the exact spot that would give him the best chance to win. Only in the Kentucky Derby did that program get knocked out of whack by outside forces that prevented him from being where he wanted to be.

I went back and tried to find a horse who I can compare Essential Quality to when it comes to versatility, adaptability, consistency, and professionalism. The first horse that came to mind was Spectacular Bid. But it’s not fair to compare any horse, especially this early in his career, to one of the truly all-time greats. In addition, The Bid could press a very fast pace and just keep going, running his opponents into the ground. But other than that there are similarities when it comes to always being in the right spot to win. We’re certainly not going to compare him to Secretariat, to whom pace had little meaning and who could do things no one had ever seen before. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were both versatile, but not to this extent and occasionally put themselves in a position to get beat.

Before I went any further I came to the realization that it was futile and meaningless to try to find a horse with whom to compare him. He just goes out and does his thing every race in all manner of ways, whether at six furlongs or 1 ½ miles or on a fast or sloppy track, and it’s time we start enjoying him for what he is and what he is capable of doing.

Niall Brennan, who gave him his early training before sending him to Brad Cox, could see all his attributes early on. “He was always very good for a Tapit, whose offspring can be quite hot or even common,” he said. “But he always showed class and had a lot of ability. He would play around a bit sometimes, but just feeling good. He was intelligent and alert and picked up on things quickly when we started breezing. We always breeze in pairs and he was naturally competitive and improved every week. He did things so easily we felt he would keep improving when we sent him to Brad.”

So, 13 months after leaving Brennan we are still seeing that class and ability and certainly that competitiveness. And he is still improving every week. Once again we can only compare him to a well-made machine that keeps working at high efficiency, can be used in many different ways, and never needs servicing.

As for my own dealings with him on the Derby Rankings, after having ranked him No. 1 the first two weeks I became enamored first with Greatest Honour and then Rock Your World, and always had Known Agenda right up there. That was in good part to their strong stamina pedigrees top and bottom (when am I going to learn?). The main reason I kept Essential Quality at No. 2 and No. 3 were my concerns about him excelling at classic distances, certainly not because of Tapit, but because his dam, third dam, and broodmare sire were sprinters. His second dam did produce a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, but she was by the stamina-oriented Tiznow, and the other five stakes in which she won or placed were all sprints. I thought I was right with my concerns when, even with his bad trip, Essential Quality failed to catch Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, and Hot Rod Charlie despite having the entire Churchill Downs stretch to do so. But then Tapit, the sire king of the Belmont Stakes, came pouring out in the final leg of the Triple Crown, as he had done on three other occasions, and made the speed in his female family seem insignificant, as he ran the best race of his life, earning impressive speed figures.

Just like that, he and Hot Rod Charlie made this crop of 3-year-olds look a lot faster with their respective 109 and 108 Beyer numbers and Essential Quality’s negative-1 ½ Thoro-Graph number, his third negative number of the year, along with a “zero. In short, he never regresses.

So the 2021 Triple Crown is in the books. Some of the pages may be seared along the edges and will continue to smolder for a while, but there is still enough strong content to leave one with the promise of an exciting July and August when the Haskell, Jim Dandy and Travers will bring the Triple Crown participants together again, and possibly introduce a second wave of brilliant newcomers, such as Flightline, Stage Raider, and Following Sea. Who is not looking forward to another battle between Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, who in their three confrontations have been separated by a total in 2 ¼ lengths?

There usually is one race and one performance that a horse will use as the bridge from star to superstar. Essential Quality is nearing that bridge, if he hasn’t already crossed it. And if there is one thing Thoroughbred racing needs right now it is a superstar to bring some positive energy back to the sport.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association and Alex Evers


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