Essential quality against six in the Travers at Saratoga


SARATOGA SPRINGS – It was Wednesday, and Brad Cox was hoping it would be Saturday.

“I would love to run the race right now,” Cox said, racked with impatience, at the draw for the 152nd running of the $1.25 million Category I Travers Stakes on Wednesday.

He was brimming with confidence three days before the Midsummer Derby was to be held. He may be ready to jump early Saturday night when he watches his talented 3-year-old Essential Quality enter the starting grid for the 1 1/4 mile race. Essential Quality is meant to win the Travers.

He is the 4-5 morning line favorite. He is the 2020 2-year-old champion. He has won seven of eight career starts.

Here is the advice to the other six horses lined up against him: roll the dice and try your luck.

Cox has confidence in his horse because he sees him training every day. Everything he asked the horse to do, he did. He needs the Travers to be there and now he is.

“I can’t do anything more with him,” said Cox, 41, from Louisville, Kentucky. “I don’t know how he can be better, really not.”

The Travers is the centerpiece of a successful 13-race map. There are seven stakes races, six of which are Tier I. Many household names will feature on the card, including Gamine, Letruska, Swiss Skydiver, Life Is Good and Whitmore.

The Travers, however, is the race people always want to see.

This will only be the second horse that Cox will start in the Travers. His first, the late Owendale, finished fifth in 2019.

Essential Quality, whose only loss came when they were fourth in the Kentucky Derby, is the undisputed leader in the 3-year-old division.

Essential Quality will be piloted by Luis Saez, the leader of the competition. Saez, like his trainer, has only confidence before the Travers. Saez, 29, has won the Travers once, in 2013 aboard Will Take Charge. Essential Quality will be his sixth Midsummer Derby mount since then.

They both know the pressure is squarely on them. This is what happens when a horse is 4-5 years old.

“The plan is just to try and break up the run and find a spot and then be clear in the stretch,” Saez said. “I know the rest will be fine.”

“Absolutely, there’s no doubt about it,” Cox said when asked about the strain on his horse and himself. “When you’re the heavy favorite, you just want it over.”

Cox respects the other six horses in the field, but he also knows what he has in Tapit’s gray son.

“If we run our race, we’re going to be tough,” he said. “We still have to move there and there are six good colts in there. We still have to come in and play our game. If we play our game, we’re going to be a big factor.”

The second pick in the morning line is Midnight Bourbon (9-2), trained by Steve Asmussen, who finished second in the Preakness then nearly crashed after an incident in the Haskell led to the disqualification of winner Hot Rod Charlie .

In the Jim Dandy, Essential Quality ran wide around the first turn, then was wide in the stretch, much wider than second-placed Keepmeinmind, whom he beat by a length.

“He’s a beast,” Keepmeinmind coach Robertino Diodoro said of Essential Quality. “He’s a very versatile horse. I have a lot of respect for Brad Cox. There’s no weakness there. From trainer to horse to jockey. Relationships that are hard to distance.”

Keepmeinmind, like the winner of Curlin Dynamic One, is the co-third pick on the morning line at 6-1. Diodoro is relishing his chance to turn the tide on Essential Quality as his pilot, Joel Rosario, will be on board for the second time after piloting Keepmeinmind in the Jim Dandy.

“Now he knows the horse,” he said. “Talking with Rosario, he said he would have done some things differently (in the Jim Dandy) if he had known the horse. Now he does.”

Dynamic One will attempt to be the second Curlin winner to win the Travers. The only one of the first 10 editions of the race to return and win the Travers was VE Day in 2014.

Coach Al Stall Jr. will make his first appearance in the Travers with Masqueparade, which is 8-1 on the morning line. He finished third in the Jim Dandy after winning the Ohio Derby.

He won’t be intimidated by Essential Quality.

“I’ve been here too long,” he said. “We weren’t afraid to race against Zenyatta (when his Blame won the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic). We have all the respect in the world for Essential Quality, but this is horse racing. Anything can happen.”


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