The 2021 Blue Grass Stakes from Keeneland Racecourse appeared to be a two-horse race on paper, featuring the undefeated Two-Year-Old Champion, Essential Quality, and the supremely talented Highly Motivated; from the moment the gates opened on Saturday afternoon, it was just that – a two-horse race. As Highly Motivated streaked to the lead, Essential Quality, beneath jockey Luis Saez, was positioned just off the leader’s flank, mirroring his every move. Entering the second turn, the colts began separating themselves from the balance of the field, setting the stage for their very own match race at the top of the homestretch. From there, the Kentucky Derby prospects threw it down, neither giving the other an inch. Ultimately, the champion prevailed, with Essential Quality getting up in the shadow of the wire to emerge victorious by a neck. Maybe their stretch duel was a one-off battle that will go down as one of the most entertaining Blue Grass Stakes in history, or perhaps it was the beginning of a new rivalry, one the sport of horse racing could desperately use. It may not have been Sunday Silence and Easy Goer or Affirmed and Alydar battling down the lane in Lexington, but Essential Quality and Highly Motivated certainly looked like those legends on Saturday.
Observations following the 2021 Blue Grass Stakes:
- The heart and determination displayed by Essential Quality is what makes him a champion, refusing to be denied despite not having a preferential pace setup. This victory in the Blue Grass on Saturday likely makes him the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and, if not the favorite, no worse than the second choice in the wagering. Essential Quality has proven himself at Churchill Downs in the past and has demonstrated an ability to overcome adverse conditions and still prevail. He represents one of the more likely winners of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, and should he win, would become just the third horse in history to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a two-year-old and go on to win the Derby as a three-year-old.
- If one were looking to find a potential stumbling block for Essential Quality, it could be the fact that he has not become much faster as a three-year-old compared to his juvenile season. In the Breeders’ Cup, the son of Tapit earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 95; in his two starts this season, he has earned Beyer Speed Figures of 96 and 97. While these speed figures still make him one of the faster horses of his generation, it would not be unfair to speculate that it is possible he hasn’t taken a major step forward from two-to-three, perhaps making him vulnerable at Churchill Downs against horses who are continuing to improve.
- Highly Motivated ran a brave race to finish second on Saturday, especially considering the potential distance limitations he has. Although he deserves immense credit and respect for making Essential Quality earn the victory in the Blue Grass, it is worth noting this effort from Highly Motivated came under ideal conditions given the distance he was attempting to navigate. Not only was the pace on the more moderate side, but, other than Essential Quality, no other horses seemed interested in even attempting to contest the lead early, likely for fear of compromising their chances at a better finish. Despite having a relatively soft lead, Highly Motivated hopped to his left-lead with one-sixteenth of a mile remaining; this could be for any number of reasons, but this could specifically be a sign that he was getting tired, even though he fought on gamely. With more pace entered in the Kentucky Derby and an extra eighth-of-a-mile to deal with, Highly Motivated will have a much more difficult scenario presented to him in Louisville.
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- Horses like Rombauer and Hidden Stash ran respectable races, but it looks as though they will be on the outside looking in when it comes to the Kentucky Derby points standings. Even if they were to draw into the race due to defections, they would not likely be considered contenders given how much slower they are than the leading lights in the division.
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