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Rocky path from Breeders' Juvenile to Derby

It was the prevailing notion Friday at the Breeders’ Cup — the idea that the winner of the $2 million Juvenile would be anointed the favorite for next year’s Kentucky Derby.


But here is the dirty little secret about that storyline. It was outdated even before the words spilled out of the mouths of NBC and TVG analysts.


Nearly a week before he upset odds-on choice Jackie’s Warrior at Keeneland, Essential Quality was already the favorite for the Derby. William Hill Nevada had cut his futures price from 20-1 on its Oct. 27 opener to 12-1. Jackie’s Warrior was firm at 15-1.


Presumably a big bet moved the number. Not that the Will Hill folks will say; they are famously reticent to discuss how and why their racing odds move. But it was clear the smart money was already on Essential Quality, a horse that had run and won at two turns even if the public was stubbornly sticking with a 4-for-4 colt that had not.


Now that Essential Quality has won the Breeders’ Cup for trending trainer Brad Cox, he is even less of a bargain. William Hill has his odds at 10-1 to win the Derby.


Seriously, 10-1? Who in his right mind would take that on a horse six months (or more) before they actually race at Churchill Downs?


Think about where we were a year ago at this time. Storm The Court had just pulled off a 45-1 upset to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on a Santa Anita main track that was so safety-first deep that burrowing animals and small appliances may have been lost in it. Before the race he was 90-1 to win the Derby. Afterward he was 12-1.


“Get out of here,” his trainer Peter Eurton said. Even he sat in disbelief.


Now 3-for-3, Essential Quality is much more believable as a Derby favorite. He did not come from out of nowhere to win the Juvenile. Well, let’s take that back. He did break from the gate poorly and get strung out wide Friday, forcing him to make up nine lengths in the last half-mile to win the race.


This is more about his not being a fluke in the mold of Storm The Court. Historically, though, that does not matter. The 36 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners simply have an awful record in the Derby. Sixteen did not even get to Churchill Downs to run for the roses. Of the other 20, only two — Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist in 2016 — were winners. One — Good Magic in 2018 — finished second. Two others — Chief’s Crown in 1985 and Timber Country in 1995 — finished third.


So 10-1 to win the Derby? The reality is that there is a 5-4 chance that Essential Quality will not even get to the 20-stall gate next spring. Anything shorter than 17-1 that he will win the race flies in the face of more than a third of a century of history. It is 6-1 that a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner even hits the board in the Derby.


Consider the list of Juvenile winners and their fates the following May — if they got that far. (Asterisks represent horses that were voted the 2-year-old male champions that year.)


2020 Essential Quality


2019 *Storm The Court — 6th


2018 *Game Winner — 5th (promoted from 6th)


2017 *Good Magic — 2nd


2016 *Classic Empire — 4th


2015 *Nyquist — 1st


2014 Texas Red — DNS


2013 New Year’s Day — DNS


2012 *Shanghai Bobby — DNS


2011 *Hansen — 9th


2010 *Uncle Mo — DNS


2009 Vale Of York — DNS


2008 *Midshipman –— DNS


2007 *War Pass — DNS


2006 *Street Sense — 1st


2005 *Stevie Wonderboy — DNS


2004 Wilko — 6th


2003 *Action This Day — 6th


2002 *Vindication — DNS


2001 *Johannesburg — 8th


2000 *Macho Uno — DNS


1999 *Anees — 13th


1998 *Answer Lively — 10th


1997 *Favorite Trick — 8th


1996 *Boston Harbor — DNS


1995 Unbridled’s Song — 5th


1994 *Timber Country — 3rd


1993 Brocco — 4th


1992 *Gilded Time — DNS


1991 *Arazi — 8th


1990 *Fly So Free — 5th


1989 *Rhythm — DNS


1988 Is It True — DNS


1987 Success Express — DNS


1986 *Capote — DNS


1985 *Tasso — DNS


1984 *Chief’s Crown — 3rd


A closer look at that list reveals that not one — not a single Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner in its 37 runnings — has made it to the Hall of Fame.


What this tells bettors is that these horses look good at age 2, but their rivals catch up with them by the time they are 3, and certainly by the first Saturday in May.


Notice, too, that Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify are not on that list. In the case of Pharoah, that was just bad luck. He got hurt just before he might have won the Juvenile in 2014. Justify, however, had not even started racing by this time in his life as a 2-year-old.


Look at other recent Derby winners. Authentic did not make his debut until a year ago this week. Country House and Always Dreaming did not break their maidens until January of their 3-year-old seasons. Oh, yes. None of them was in the Breeders’ Cup.


The moral to this story is take Essential Quality and any other 2-year-old that was at Keeneland last week with a grain of salt the size of Bonneville. They are all wonderfully precocious — and horribly overrated.


That said, if Essential Quality comes back to a Kentucky winner’s circle draped in roses next spring, bettors who did not get on him at 10-1 know where to send the thorns.


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