Essential Quality appears right on schedule, opening his three-year-old season with a sharp win in the Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park. The unbeaten two-year-old champion is a polished product compared to Greatest Honour, who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by delivering a dynamic late rally in the Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
Their profiles differ, but both rate as major contenders for the 2021 Kentucky Derby.
Three qualifiers were offered last weekend, with the John Battaglia Memorial S. at Turfway a new addition to the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, and three more are scheduled for this Saturday, including the San Felipe S. (G2) at Santa Anita.
Five San Felipe contestants – Life Is Good, Dream Shake, Medina Spirit, Roman Centurian, and The Greatest Honor – are listed among the 23 individual betting interests in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager this weekend.
After opening his racing career with a pair of convincing front-running wins, including the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), Essential Quality was seriously tested in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last fall. The gray Tapit colt had to rally from nearly 10 lengths off the pace to narrowly prevail over runner-up Hot Rod Charlie and third-placer Keepmeinmind.
It was far from a visually stunning performance, but the difficult assignment served as a valuable building block.
A Godolphin homebred trained by Brad Cox, Essential Quality returned in excellent condition over a sloppy track Saturday, establishing a wide stalking trip before advancing on his own accord through the final turn. He responded when asked by Luis Saez, surging to a clear lead and cruising to a 4 1/4-length triumph in the 1 1/16-mile Southwest.
Essential Quality is a prime candidate to keep moving forward off the comfortable win. He looks built for longer distances and has earned triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings. And the stalker possesses the tactical speed to make his own trip if necessary.
The 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass S. (G2) at Keeneland on April 3 is likely next.
Fountain of Youth
Greatest Honour needed four starts to break his maiden, earning his diploma in late December at Gulfstream. The bay Tapit colt jumped straight to stakes competition with a resounding 5 3/4-length victory in Jan. 30 Holy Bull S. (G3).
The up-and-coming sophomore became a trendy Kentucky Derby pick, and many trainers would have felt pressure to wait for the Florida Derby after the Holy Bull — two preps has become the standard for serious contenders in this era.
Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, who won the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb, would have no problem utilizing only two preps if it fit the horse. However, Greatest Honour needed more seasoning, and McGaughey made the shrewd decision to run his pupil back in the Fountain of Youth four weeks later.
Greatest Honour received the right setup in the Holy Bull, enjoying clear sailing while offering a visually impressive move on the final turn to seize control. Everything went his way, but circumstances were different in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth.
Drain the Clock, the 5-2 second choice, established a clear lead on a moderate pace, completing the opening three-quarters in 1:11.51. After rating well off the pace and taking plenty of kickback, Greatest Honour continued to travel inside a rival on the final bend. And surprisingly, he was basically holding his position in eighth through most of the turn.
The even-money favorite had room to advance along the inside, but Greatest Honour’s immaturity showed as he appeared uncomfortable in traffic. When Jose Ortiz guided his mount wide approaching the stretch, the sophomore’s stride lengthened significantly.
The Courtlandt Farms homebred closed like a freight train over the final sixteenth of a mile, erasing a five-length deficit to win going away. Greatest Honour was moving past rivals so quickly that Ortiz eased him under the wire after collaring runner-up Drain the Clock late.
Drain the Clock has some quality, but his future is probably at one-turn distances. South Florida appears to have little-to-no depth when it comes to Kentucky Derby contenders – it’s arguably the weakest region in the country this year. And the final time of the Fountain of Youth was on the slow side.
Legitimate questions still surround Greatest Honour, but he has this “it” factor. We haven’t seen his best yet, just wait until he stretches out in distance.
The exciting colt will make his final prep in the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby (G1) on March 27.
John Battaglia Memorial
Hush of a Storm had to survive an inquiry, but the stalker made his stakes debut a winning one in Friday’s John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway. The Creative Cause colt unnecessarily lugged in while launching a decisive rally in upper stretch, drawing away to score by 1 1/2 lengths, and stewards ruled the incident didn’t affect the order of finish.
After dropping his first outing, Hush of Storm has won three straight for trainer Bill Morey. He easily broke his maiden over Turfway’s Polytrack in mid-December, and captured an entry-level allowance 18 days later.
Hush of a Storm picked up new jockey Santiago Gonzalez and stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in the Battaglia, earning 10 points toward a Derby berth. The bay colt will return for the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway on March 27, which will offer 170 points (100-40-20-10) as a major qualifier.
Along with the San Felipe, I will review the Gotham S. (G3) at Aqueduct and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) next week.