By Brian Boh
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Godolphin homebred Essential Quality earned the title of top juvenile last year and continued to bolster his bid to be named top 3-year-old male with another impressive score in a prestigious race, outdueling Midnight Bourbon in the stretch to prevail by a neck in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers for sophomores at historic Saratoga Race Course.
The 152nd edition of the Runhappy Travers – the country’s oldest stakes race for 3-year-olds – saw Essential Quality ace another test, navigating the classic 1 1/4-mile distance on the main track to win for the eighth time in nine career starts and tally his seventh graded stakes victory and fourth Grade 1 triumph.
The announced crowd of 44,507 saw the Runhappy Travers serve as the finale of seven graded stakes, including six Grade 1s, on a loaded 13-race card, with reigning Eclipse Award-winning 2-Year-Old Champion Essential Quality building on a 2021 that already saw him capture the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets in June followed by a win in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on July 31 at the Spa.
The Brad Cox-trainee broke well from post 2 under jockey Luis Saez, who kept the 2-5 favorite in second position behind Midnight Bourbon. Ricardo Santana, Jr. ushered Midnight Bourbon to the front from the inside post, leading the seven-horse field through the opening quarter-mile in 24.18 seconds, the half in 48.96 and three-quarters in 1:14.49 on the fast track.
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon, runner-up in the Grade 1 Preakness in May at Pimlico, was kept to the inside coming out of the final turn. Saez tapped into Essential Quality’s deep reserve, keeping him to task at the top of the stretch while asking him to run down the pacesetter. But Midnight Bourbon would not be put away easily as Essential Quality dug in gamely to earn the red-and-white carnation blanket, with the Tapit colt hitting the wire in a final time of 2:01.96.
“He broke well. We were hoping that he wouldn’t lose as much ground and have more of a ground-saving trip as opposed to the Jim Dandy,” Cox said. “Luis did a good job of recognizing that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of pace. He asked him to run out of there and established good position and didn’t let Midnight Bourbon get too far away up the backside. I was a little worried up the backside once he cleared up with softer fractions. He’s a tremendous horse. He’s a champion and he ran like one today.”
The victory was a historic one for Cox, who continued his stellar run at the Saratoga summer meet. The defending Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Trainer won the Grade 1, $1 million Whitney with Knicks Go three weeks earlier at the Spa and became just the third trainer all-time – and first in 79 years – to sweep the Whitney and Travers in the same year with two different horses.
Cox joined elite company by winning the Whitney and Travers with separate horses, as James G. Rowe, Jr. [St. Brideaux in the Whitney and Twenty Grand in the Travers] in 1931 and John M. Gaver, Sr. with Swing and Sway [Whitney] and Shut Out [Travers] in 1942 also pulling off the feat.
Essential Quality has been nearly unflappable in high-pressure situations, with seven of his eight career wins coming as the favorite. After going 3-for-3 as a juvenile, including wins in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile [the only race in which he was not the top mutuel choice] to become a champion, Essential Quality added scores this year in the Grade 3 Southwest in February at Oaklawn Park and the Grade 2 Blue Grass in April at Keeneland.
After running a competitive fourth in his only career non-winning effort in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, Essential Quality has followed with three impressive wins, including providing Cox first win in an American Classic by taking the 12-furlong “Test of the Champion” before his two Saratoga victories.
“He’s danced a lot of dances and shown up,” Cox said. “His lone defeat was the Kentucky Derby, where we felt he was right there in the mix. He’s done nothing wrong. We’re proud of what he’s accomplished this year and he’s a very good horse with a fantastic resume.”
Saez, aboard for all eight of Essential Quality’s stakes starts, won his second career Travers, adding to his first aboard Will Take Charge in 2013.
“It’s amazing, that’s my second Travers and I’m so thankful to be here and be a part of it in this amazing race,” Saez said. “To me, he’s the best horse, the horse of the year, and he deserves all the credit.”
Essential Quality paid $2.90 on a $2 win wager and improved his career earnings to more than $4.2 million.
“It says a lot about his [Sheikh Mohammed] breeding and racing program to be able to put an athlete like this to the forefront as a 2-year old and a 3-year old,” said Jimmy Bell, the Godolphin USA president. “He’s brought a lot of joy to everyone. It’s been a great team effort. Brad and his team have done a great job.
“When you go to the Belmont at the mile and a half, to a mile and an eighth [in the Jim Dandy] to a mile and a quarter, hats off to the way they brought him into this race in good form,” Bell continued. “Luis Saez might be the hottest jockey in the country. We’re just very fortunate and blessed to be a part of this team.”
Midnight Bourbon, the winner of the Grade 3 Lecomte in January at Fair Grounds, was entering off a Grade 1 Haskell effort in which he clipped heels with Hot Rod Charlie and fell, unseating the rider in the stretch in July at Monmouth.
But Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen saw his charge bounce back to finish five lengths clear of Miles D for second in the Travers, giving Asmussen his best finish in the race from seven starters.
“I’m very proud of his effort. He’s a first-class horse that is getting better,” Asmussen said.
Four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Chad Brown earned black type in the Travers for the first time with his 12th all-time starter, as Peter Brant and Robert LaPenta’s Miles D edged Keepmeinmind by a neck under jockey Flavien Prat.
“He was third-best by a good margin, but we’ll take it,” Brown said. “I was just talking to Flavien about how pleased I was. Our plan was to try to give him a chance to win and if you can find Essential Quality early in the race, stay right next to him, and then test our horse.
“He was soundly defeated today but he tried all the way to the wire and got third,” Brown added. “The two horses that went on to the wire were clearly better than this group today. We’ll re-group with our guy. He’s lightly-raced and looks like he has a bright future ahead of him. Hats off to the winner, he’s a true champion.”
King Fury, Masqueparade and Dynamic One completed the order of finish.