How often do losing bettors grumble that Vegas knows? Usually it happens when they see a game decided by a half-point either side of the spread.
It also works in horse racing. Someone here in Nevada knew enough about Essential Quality to send a loud message about his short- and long-term future.
After opening 20-1 to win next year’s Kentucky Derby, he suddenly became the 12-1 favorite last week at William Hill. A big bet? Probably. Whatever the case, it was already a harbinger of something sooner – namely what happened Friday at Keeneland in Kentucky.
Flexing his experience at racing around two turns, Essential Quality (7-2) made a big run in the stretch, blowing past rivals for a three-quarter-length victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Even though this race has produced only two Derby winners in its first 36 years, it is nevertheless an influential foundation for months of wagering. And hoping.
“The Derby is the obvious thought or the dream,” winning trainer Brad Cox said. “We’ll let the dust settle and see how he comes out of the race. We’ll map out a plan this winter, but we’re very excited about this horse next year in his 3-year-old campaign.”
Cox was reminded Friday that plans do not always come to pass. He did not want jockey Luis Sáez and Essential Quality to have a bumpy start, especially on a fast main track that was favoring speed early in the day. But that is what they got, and instead of being close to the lead midway through, the son of Tapit was in eighth place trailing a hot early pace.
“I was concerned,” said Cox, who also won Friday’s Juvenile Fillies Turf with Aunt Pearl. “I wasn’t sure he was really carrying himself into the bridle. When he was starting to pick off a couple horses, I thought he was going to come. Once they straightened up (in the homestretch) it looked like the horses on the lead were getting a little leg-weary. He just stayed on. He’s just got a tremendous amount of stamina.”
It was déjà vu for Essential Quality. Sort of. Although he was never more than a length behind at any point last month, he won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity over these same 8½ furlongs on this very track, showing that he could win a two-turn race.
That is something that Friday’s odds-on favorite Jackie’s Warrior (4-5) still has on his to-do list. He finished fourth for his first loss in five starts. It was also his first start in a two-turn race. His trainer Steve Asmussen admitted that whether Jackie’s Warrior is a route horse is still in doubt.
“I think it will be until he wins,” Asmussen said.
Jackie’s Warrior opened the 15-1 favorite to win the Derby. He maintained those odds even as that presumably big bet shortened Essential Quality. Suffice it to say he will carry a much longer Derby price once William Hill reopens its futures. (They were routinely suspended once the Juvenile began.)
Just to humble the racing denizens of Glitter Gulch, go figure Hot Rod Charlie (94-1). A maiden winner that found himself in his first race worth more than $55,000, he actually led for one shining moment in the homestretch. That was before Essential Quality blew past him. Trainer Doug O’Neill’s long shot by Oxbow still managed to finish second, 1¼ lengths ahead of the maiden Keepmeinmind (30-1). Those long odds meant that the $1 exacta paid $299.90, the 50-cent trifecta $1,914.80 and the 10-cent superfecta $4,077.69.
Presuming it will happen in May next year, there are still six months before the Derby. Short futures prices now can be fleeting. A year ago Storm The Court was a 45-1 upset winner in the Juvenile at Santa Anita, and he was quickly cut from 90-1 to 12-1 to win the Derby. How did that work out for anyone capricious enough to take a bite of that futures price?
Essential Quality does not give off that sort of fluky vibe, but he is a Godolphin homebred. That brings up a stat that cannot be ignored. The racing giant based in the Middle East has had 11 starters in the Kentucky Derby. Its best finish was fourth with Frosted in 2015, the year that American Pharoah ended the 37-year Triple Crown drought.
“Certainly you dream,” Godolphin USA president Jimmy Bell said. “If you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t be in this business. To be able to handle this competition, he certainly makes you dream a little bit.”
There were other dreamers on Future Stars Friday in four other Breeders’ Cup races.
Juvenile Turf. Trainer Mike Maker is a man of few words, and there were not many spoken by or about him before the Breeders’ Cup. But coming off a Grade 2 win last month at Belmont Park, his colt Fire At Will (30-1) pulled off the biggest surprise of Future Stars Friday. The son of Declaration Of War lurked just off the pace until Ricardo Santana Jr. pushed the button in the stretch for a three-length upset victory. “We have been high on him since Day 1, and with each race he’s gotten better,” Maker said. The late closing Coolmore colt Battleground (7-2) was second, leaving Outadore (9-1) another neck behind in third. Fire At Will covered the mile in 1:35.81 on turf rated good, although it looked closer to firm.
Juvenile Fillies. Vequist (6-1) got a rail trip from Joel Rosario and overtook pacesetter Dayoutoftheoffice (4-1) in the stretch for a three-length victory in the 8½-furlong race. “I tried to save ground,” said Rosario, now a 12-time Breeders’ Cup winner. “It was hard for her in the turn, because I had a horse outside me. But she did great. I never gave up my position.” Trained by Butch Reid, the daughter of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist stalked the lead on a fast track that had been favoring speed early Friday. Dayoutoftheoffice capitulated in mid-stretch and held on for second place by a nose over Girl Daddy (5-1). Previously unbeaten Princess Noor (9-5), the favorite trained by Bob Baffert, faded to fifth, 4½ lengths behind. The winning time was 1:42.30 for Vequist, now a two-time Grade 1 winner.
Juvenile Fillies Turf. This one was over at the start. Jockey Florent Géroux rode Aunt Pearl (5-2) to a quick lead, geared her down on the backstretch and then accelerated late for a convincing 2½-length victory. Trained by Cox, the daughter of Lope De Vega set fractions of 22.55, 47.30 and 1:12.21 before winning the 8½-furlong race at a time of 1:35.71. She has never trailed at any call in her three races, winning them by a combined 10 lengths. Coolmore filly Mother Earth (22-1) and Miss Amulet (11-1) closed late to finish second and third, respectively, a neck apart. Mother Earth is trained by Aidan O’Brien, whose 12 victories are more than any other foreign trainer in the annual championships. But since Mendelssohn won for him in the 2007 Juvenile Fillies, Ireland’s top horseman has lost with his last 38 Breeders’ Cup starters.
Juvenile Turf Sprint. Wesley Ward has trained 11 Royal Ascot winners. Golden Pal was nearly a 12th nearly four months ago, and it looks like he will get another chance next year coming off his victory Friday. Set off an odds-on favorite, Golden Pal (4-5) took the early lead under jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and went on to win the Breeders’ Cup opener. “I got a little worried on the back side,” said Ward, who won this race last year with Four Wheel Drive. “Irad kind of lost a little momentum there and took a pretty good hold of him, but then he just accelerated down the lane.” Cowan (11-1) finished three-quarters of a length behind in second with Ubettabelieveit (26-1) another length back in third. The winning time over the 5½ furlongs was 1:02.82 for the Uncle Mo colt that finished a narrow second in England in the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes in June. “Royal Ascot, here we come,” Ward said. “He’s going to get them (next) year.”
Breeders’ Cup notes and opinions
Christophe Soumillon, a 10-time riding champion in France, had to drop out of the Breeders’ Cup on Friday after testing positive for the coronavirus. Two-time reigning Irish champion jockey Colin Reade will replace Soumillon on Tarnawa, one of the top three futures betting choices Saturday in the Turf. Pierre-Charles Boudot, himself a two-time French champion, takes over in the Mile on long shot Order Of Australia, an “also eligible” that drew in when Boudot’s original mount One Master was declared out with muscle trouble.
While looking after his horses in Kentucky, Todd Pletcher achieved a career milestone in New York. When Microsecond won the seventh race Friday at Aqueduct, that brought Pletcher to 5,000 career victories. “It’s such a great tribute to the whole staff and a lot of people who put in so much hard work,” Pletcher said, “But mainly it’s about the horses. It would have been kind of cool to do it in a Breeders’ Cup race, but we always say when we have a horse in that our goal is to do the best we can. Every win counts, and we’re happy to get it.” Pletcher became the eighth North American trainer to reach 5,000 wins.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races, including Breeders’ Cup wrap-ups Friday and Saturday evenings. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week offers two episodes. The first, a pop-up posted Wednesday, includes analysis of all 14 Breeders’ Cup races with Las Vegas horseplayer/bookmakers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello, Duane Colucci and Vinny Magliulo. The regular weekly episode posted Friday features NBC Sports and 1/ST BET handicapper Ed Olczyk and five-time Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Peter Miller. The RFRP is available via free subscription at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.