May 11, 2021

Kentucky Derby Report: February to close with three preps

Essential Quality
Essential Quality, shown winning the Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland, will make his anticipated three-year-old debut in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park (Coady Photography)

After a week hiatus, the Road to the Kentucky Derby resumes with three qualifiers this weekend. Here is an early look at the fields.

Friday’s $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial S. at Turfway Park will award 17 points (10-4-2-1) as a new Kentucky Derby qualifier, and the 1 1/16-mile Polytrack feature has attracted Grade 1 juvenile winner Gretzky the Great. The Mark Casse-trained colt will make his first appearance since finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).

Gretzky the Great captured his lone attempt on an all-weather track, breaking his maiden by open lengths at Woodbine, and the son of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist romped by 3 1/4 lengths in the Summer S. (G1) on turf. His back class merits serious respect in this spot.

However, new rider Gerardo Corrales will have to work out a trip from the rail in a 12-horse field. Gretzky the Great was able to race prominently throughout in all three wins, but there is speed to his outside in the Battaglia starting gate.

Hush of a Storm faces a class check in his stakes debut, but he’s made fine progress for Bill Morey at Turfway this winter. A runaway maiden scorer in his second career outing, the stalker offered a sharp late kick to win going away over entry-level allowance foes last time. His Brisnet Speed ratings compare favorably, and Hush of a Storm should receive a perfect setup with leading rider Santiago Gonzalez.

Unbeaten juvenile champion Essential Quality will open his three-year-old season in the $750,000 Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park. Delayed 12 days because of adverse weather, the 17-point qualifier drew a field of seven.

Essential Quality captured his first two starts by open lengths, but the Tapit colt was more workmanlike recording a narrow win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), getting up late after switching to rating tactics.

I’m excited to see what he can offer at age three. After essentially overpowering foes in the first two starts, Essential Quality gained valuable seasoning while gutting out the Juvenile. And the gray colt looks like the type who will improve with added maturity.

However, Essential Quality could prove vulnerable against a classy rival with a tactical advantage.

Jackie’s Warrior, who appears to be training forwardly at Fair Grounds in preparation for Steve Asmussen, should be lone speed. The multiple Grade 1 winner faltered when trying two turns in the Juvenile, but he was the only forward runner close at the end, finishing 3 1/4 lengths back in fourth after chasing a ridiculously taxing pace.

Future one-turn stars have had success over the 1 1/16-mile Southwest trip. Past winners include 1997 sprint champion Smoke Glacken and 2013 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) winner Secret Circle, and 2020 sprint champion Whitmore finished second in the 2016 Southwest before eventually cutting back in distance.

Jackie’s Warrior may not be built for 1 1/4 miles in early spring, but he’s eligible to thrive as lone speed in the Southwest.

Holy Bull S. (G3) winner Greatest Honour tops the expected field in Saturday’s $300,000 Fountain of Youth S. (G2) at Gulfstream Park, which will be drawn Wednesday. Worth 85 points (50-20-10-5), the 1 1/16-mile race has a couple of intriguing prospects, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf upsetter Fire At Will and impressive Swale S. (G3) victor Drain the Clock, seeking to join the Kentucky Derby trail.

After opening his racing career with three consecutive placings in New York, Greatest Honour has won two straight in South Florida for Shug McGaughey. The Tapit colt wasn’t flashy grinding out a 1 1/2-length maiden triumph in late December, but Greatest Honour moved forward in the Jan. 30 Holy Bull, offering an eye-catching turn of foot to win going away by 5 3/4 lengths.

Holy Bull runner-up Tarantino and third-placer Prime Factor are also expected back, and Drain the Clock has the talent to be a major factor if he handles the two-turn distance. He’s been brilliant winning a pair of sprint stakes by a combined 13 3/4 lengths this year, but longer distances represent a legitimate hurdle for the Maclean’s Music colt.

From 14 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, Fire At Will would be the first winner to return in a dirt race. A couple came back on synthetic surfaces, but the Juvenile Turf has produced few serious Kentucky Derby candidates the following spring.

Mike Maker is seeking to buck the trend with Fire At Will.