Essential Quality: Godolphin’s Best Chance Yet To Win Kentucky Derby

By Lynne Snierson

Godolphin, the global racing and breeding operation that spans four continents, continues its quest for the ultimate prize in horse racing – victory in the Kentucky Derby.

Essential Quality Blue Grass 2021

Essential Quality – Photo Courtesy of Keeneland / Coady Photography

Since Godolphin sent out its first Derby starter in 1999, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Godolphin founder, has emphasized his desire to win America’s greatest race.

Sure, the royal blue silks of Dubai-based Godolphin, boasts nearly 300 Grade/Group 1 wins – among them 16 Breeders’ Cup victories, 10 Dubai World Cup wins, multiple triumphs at Royal Ascot, wins in the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, and a win in the Melbourne Cup.

The trophy case is missing the 18-karat gold horse and rider, 22-inch tall, 67-ounce Kentucky Derby trophy.

This could be the year Godolphin’s colors show up in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Their homebred Essential Quality, the 2-year-old champion, ran his record to 5-for-5 with a narrow victory in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland on April 3.

“It’s truly hard to imagine because it’s such an elusive place to get to,” said Jimmy Bell, the head of Godolphin’s American operation. “It is one of the most prestigious races, if not the most prestigious race, in the world in many people’s minds. And it is what everyone who has a talented 3-year-old colt at this time of the year points toward.

“There is no question about that. Sheikh Mohammed is so philosophical about these types of races and opportunities that, in time, patience will prevail and if it’s meant to be, it will happen.”

Ever since Worldly Manner finished seventh in 1999 running under the Godolphin colors, the goal of winning the Derby was established.

However, Godolphin’s overall record with 11 starters in a total of nine Derbies is 11-0-0-0. In 1992, Sheikh Mohammed and Allen Paulson were co-owners of Arazi, who finished eighth as the 9-10 favorite.

“The great news is that there has never been an ounce of pressure,’’ Bell said., “It is just that everyone would love to see it happen, from Sheikh Mohammed, who is above all an astute horseman and understands this all probably better than we do. He is just excited to have opportunities and even more excited that a couple of these are homebreds as well. He makes it very easy because he is so understanding and has a great outlook on things.”

All seems to be going well in 2021. Essential Quality, a son of Tapit-Delightful Quality, by Elusive Quality, is the likely Derby favorite and is trained by Eclipse Award-winner Brad Cox.

With 100 Derby qualifying points for his Blue Grass win, Essential Quality is No. 1 on the leaderboard with 140 points. Another 3-year-old owned by Godolphin, UAE Derby winner Rebel Romance, is in Derby contention. Also, Prevalence was a Derby hopeful before finishing sixth in the Wood Memorial (G2) on April 3.

It’s been a pretty good year for Godolphin, the Eclipse Award winners as top owner and top breeder in 2020. Mystic Guide gave the stable it’s a 10th victory in the 25-year history of the Dubai World Cup.

Rebel Romance remains a Derby question mark but is fifth on the leaderboard with 100 points after winning the UAE Derby.

“We [trainer Charlie Appleby and Sheikh Mohammed] have not decided,” Bell said last week. “That would be something that would come from that side of the ocean. It was gratifying to see him step up and win the [UAE] Derby like that. He had plenty of run to him. There are no discussions [at that time]) and I wouldn’t be able to comment on that … it’s just there is nothing official. Thank goodness our lap is pretty full with the couple we have over here. We’re focused on that.”

With his delayed 3-year-old debut due to weather issues in Arkansas, Essential Quality won the Southwest (G3) on Feb. 27, and Cox made the call for a final prep in the Blue Grass rather than the Arkansas Derby.

“Brad had a pretty good idea not too long after the Breeders’ Cup, what he wanted to do,’’ Bell said. “Brad has a pretty good track record at Keeneland, which isn’t far from Churchill, which is sort of getting you in the neighborhood. At this point, it wasn’t necessarily a question of getting points, it was really how fast can we get to the Kentucky Derby.”

With his Blue Grass win, Essential Quality has three Grade 1 wins at Keeneland, including last year’s BC Juvenile and the Breeders’ Futurity.

“It really couldn’t mean any more. This game is a big team effort and there are a lot of hands behind the scenes, from the time they’re foaled, to the raising, to the yearlings, and then they get shipped off,’’ Bell said. “To have him accomplish what he has and to then come truly home, literally to the back yard three miles from Jonabell [Godolphin’s U.S.-based farm],” said Bell. “I don’t think you can find a better morale booster, a better team builder, and anybody who runs an operation from the big ones to the mom and pops, they know how important it is to have your team members a part of this thing and to celebrate it.”

Since he’s a second-generation homebred, it’s a little more special.

“It’s one thing to have a horse of this talent and ability, and then it’s an entirely different thing when it’s a homebred,’’ Bell said. “I think anybody would be excited under any circumstances, even if the horse was purchased, but being from the farm, being foaled and raised here, and with us having so much of the family already, it’s really what you go about this for. It’s to have these special moments to celebrate with the people who have had some impact into this thing happening.”