A Midnight Run, But Quality Wins Out Again

Once again, Essential Quality proved he is a winning machine, as he overcame a dawdling pace and a blistering final quarter to outrun the top-class Midnight Bourbon in the Travers Stakes. ~ Steve Haskin

A Midnight Run, But Quality Wins Out Again

By Steve Haskin


In 54 years of watching horseracing, surely I must have seen a horse that reminds me of Essential Quality. I have been trying to think of one and was getting nowhere until I watched the Travers Stakes. Then it hit me. Although he has run only nine times, and is nowhere near as accomplished as any of the all-time greats who ran for four or five years, I can now say that Essential Quality is Buckpasser with tactical speed.

Now I know many of you cannot relate to that because you never saw Buckpasser and know little about him, so I will enlighten you. Buckpasser was the winning machine of his day, and like Essential Quality he would win by only as much as he had to. But he knew where that wire was and could sniff it out like a bloodhound. He didn’t win in fast times except when one of his many rabbits set a scorching pace for him, and he never won by big margins. He just won…race after race.

In his 25 career victories, 17 were by 1 ½ lengths or less and 14 of those were by less than a length. Five of Essential Quality’s last six victories were by 1 ¼ lengths or less and four of those were by less than a length. While Essential Quality has the ability to adapt to any pace, Buckpasser had a rabbit in 12 of his races.

But let’s focus on Essential Quality from here on. Simply put, when the pace has been fast he dropped back in sixth, seventh, or eighth and when the pace has been slow he was right up there within striking distance of the leader. Although Midnight Bourbon was allowed to get away with very slow fractions in the Travers, for Essential to beat him by a neck he had to do something I cannot recall a horse ever doing, which is to come home his final quarter in a mile and a quarter race in :23 flat. After those snail-like fractions he somehow was able to run the 10 furlongs in a more than respectable 2:01 4/5, earning a 107 Beyer speed figure. Only eight Travers winners have broken 2:02 in the last 27 years.

If anyone had told me before the race that Midnight Bourbon, who is just coming into his own as his sire Tiznow did around this time, would be allowed to crawl on the front end by himself in :48 4/5 and 1:14 2/5 I would have thought there was no way he was going to lose. As it is, closing as fast as he did, he shouldn’t have lost, but tell that to Essential Quality.

And briefly getting back to Buckpasser, he needed a rabbit to run his mile and a quarter in the Travers in 2:01 3/5, which at the time equaled the track record. And he came home his final quarter in :24 3/5 to beat Amberoid by three-quarters of a length.

The final point about time is that in the past 20 years, only Triple Crown winner American Pharoah has run a faster Belmont Stakes than Essential Quality, who has won at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Oaklawn Park, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, on fast and sloppy tracks from six furlongs to 1 ½ miles.

What I also love about him is that when he won the Blue Grass Stakes by a neck it was 5 1/2 lengths back to the third horse. When he won the Belmont by 1 ¼ lengths it was 11 ¼ lengths back to Preakness winner Rombauer in third. And when he won the Travers by a neck it was five lengths back to the third horse.

Yes, although he has run only nine times, he is a throwback to the types of horses I was weaned on; horses who would scrape and claw their way to victory in any manner possible, as long as they got to the wire first. He could blow right by you and win by open lengths, as he did in the Breeders’ Futurity and Southwest Stakes ; he could run you down in the final strides, as he did in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; or he could look you in the eye and battle you every inch of the way, as he did in the Blue Grass Stakes, Belmont, Jim Dandy, and Travers

Perhaps his main attribute is taking care of himself and knowing when to relax and when to get fired up for competition. His assistant trainer Jorgito Abrego posted a video on Travers day and a photo on Jim Dandy day of him sprawled out in his stall fast asleep. When I visited him several weeks ago I got photos of him snatching his feed before it even got in his stall; looking bright and alert watching all the activity; getting sleepy-eyed standing by his webbing; and finally laying down for a snooze. In short, he knows how to conserve energy on a daily basis, which is so important on race days.

The big question now is, how does anyone overcome trainer Brad Cox’s “Two Shades of Grey” in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, meaning Essential Quality and Knicks Go, the division leading 3-year- old and older horse? Who can possibly knock off this powerhouse one-two punch?

Although the temptation will be strong to retire Essential Quality at the end of the year, as so many top 3-year-olds are, perhaps it is time for a big owner like Godolphin to think of getting a horse in the Hall of Fame or at least give him a chance to be included among the all-time greats. If Essential Quality shows in the Classic that he is not ready to match Knicks Go’s remarkable speed and staying power, there is always next year, when he should be an even more formidable foe than he’s been this year. Sheikh Mohammed was in the same position in 2006 with Bernardini and elected to retire him. Now he has an opportunity to elevate one of his horses into the realm of the all-time greats, as Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid did in
the seventies by racing at 4.

Yes, I am getting way ahead of myself, but horses like Essential Quality don’t come around every year and no one wants to say goodbye to him when there is so much more for him to achieve.

We have gotten too used to early farewells. Heck, I have already compared him in a way to the immortal Buckpasser. Now it is up to the sheikh and the Godolphin braintrust to share Buckpasser’s place in history with one of their own.

Photos courtesy of Adam Coglianese and Steve Haskin


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