Essential Quality Is Your Derby Favorite After Blue Grass Win; Pletcher Wins Wood With 72-1 Longshot

By Richard Rosenblatt

A big upset in the Wood Memorial put trainer Todd Pletcher front and center for the Kentucky Derby, while Essential Quality firmly established his role as the favorite in the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs in four weeks.

A little later a huge Saturday of Derby preps, and with fans at Santa Anita Park for the first time in a year, Rock Your World moved into the Derby picture with a gate-to-wire win over trainer Bob Baffert’s favorite Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). With 100 Derby qualifying point, the colt trained by John Sadler moves into sixth place.

Essential Quality Blue Grass 2021

Essential Quality – Photo Courtesy of Keeneland / Coady Photography

On a day of three Derby preps and four Kentucky Oaks (G1) preps, 2021 Hall of Fame nominee Pletcher watched 72-1 longshot Bourbonic stage a last-to-first surge in the stretch to win the $750,000 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct on Saturday.

Imagine that! When’s the last time a Pletcher-trained horse went off at 72-1 odds? For those who had faith, the Calumet Farm-owned 3-year-old returned $146.50 for a $2 win bet.

Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner, won the Florida Derby (G1) last week with Known Agenda to soar into the Derby picture, and Sainthood ran second the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) to move into Derby contention.

Not only did Bourbonic, ridden by Kendrick Carmouche, earn 100 Derby qualifying points to move into seventh place on the leaderboard, Pletcher-trainee Dynamic One finished second [a neck behind his stablemate] and picked up 40 qualifying points to move into 18th on the leaderboard.

“We’ve had a good run. It’s nice to see things coming together at the right time,’’ Pletcher said “We didn’t have a lot of promising action in January and February, and a lot of times you’re better off when they’re coming around at the right time.”

At Keeneland, 1-2 favorite Essential Quality ($3) remained unbeaten in five races but was tested in the stretch before prevailing by a neck over Highly Motivated in the $800,00 Blue Grass (G2).

“He probably needed that, to get a good test today,’’ winning trainer Brad Cox said. “He did everything easy enough in his last race [Southwest Stakes] and I was proud of what he was able to overcome today. He really had to work to get by the horse on the inside [Highly Motivated]. Both of them really duked it out the whole way. It set up for both of them, and they both responded well. That was a good race four weeks out.”

With 100 more points to his total, Essential Quality, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner, tops the leaderboard with 140 points.

The three Derby preps offered qualifying points of 100-40-20-10 points to the first four finishers, and the results shook up the leaderboard. The Derby field is limited to 20 starters, and the entries are based on qualifying points.

Here’s a rundown: Seven of the new top 20 either moved in or up on the leaderboard. Medina Spirit added 40 points to his total is ninth and Derby bound according to Baffert; Weyburn, fourth in the Wood, picked up 10 points is now 11th – but remains questionable for the Derby; Highly Motivated added 40 points for his runner-up finish in the Blue Grass and ranks 14th with 50 points; and Dynamic One, with 40 points for second in the Wood, is 18th with 40 points.

In the Oaks preps, each offering 100-40-20-10 points to the first four finishers, it was 2-5 favorite Search Results ($2.80) winning the Gazelle (G3) at the Big A; Pletcher’s 3-2 favorite Malathaat ($5) taking the Ashland (G1); Soothsay ($10.40) upsetting Beautiful Girl and Moraz in the Santa Anita Oaks (G2); and 4-5 favorite Pauline’s Pearl winning the Fantasy (G3).

All four fillies are guaranteed a spot in the Oaks on April 30, a race that has 14-horse maximum.

The recaps:

The Boys (Derby preps)

Santa Anita Derby (G1)

Rock Your World made a winning transition from turf to dirt with his 4 ¼-length victory in a field of nine – Roman Centurian was scratched.

Ridden by Umberto Rispoli, the bay son of Candy Ride covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.17.

Dream Shake was third, followed by Defunded, Law Professor, Parnelli, The Great One, Back Ring Luck, and Ottothelegend.

Blue Grass (G2)

A tough stretch run, but Essential Quality prevailed, barely.

“That other horse was fighting, and I thought we weren’t going to get him,’’ winning jockey Luis Saez said, referring to Highly Motivated. “But I always had faith in Essential Quality. He’s a nice horse. No matter how fast or slow the pace, he always wants to be first at the wire.”

Highly Motivated, trained by Chad Brown, ran as well as expected.

“He ran a huge race. I’m very satisfied the way he did it,’’ jockey Javier Castellano said. “I got beat, finished second, but I’m so proud of my horse and the way he did it today. Easy fractions on the lead, he galloped along – that’s the first time he did two turns. He tried with one of the best horses in the country and I give all the credit to the winner. But I would never complain with my horse and the way he did it.”

Wood Memorial (G2)

Even though the winning time of 1:54.49 was slow for the 1 1/8-mile Wood, does it really matter for trainer Todd Pletcher.

He ran 1-2 with 72-1 longshot and 15-1 shot with Bourbonic and Dynamic One – both moving into Derby contention – and the 3-5 exacta payoff was $906 on a $2 bet – for a pair of Pletcher horses!

The last Derby winner to run in the Wood was Funny Cide in 2003.

“We always felt this horse would handle added distance,” said Pletcher, who now has six Wood wins. “He was able to get a perfect trip and sit back and make one late run. He was able to get there just in time. It was a big effort.”

The Girls (Oaks preps)

Ashland (G1)

Malathaat ($5) remained unbeaten in four starts as she nailed Pass the Champagne in the final strides for a head win in the 84th running of the Ashland.

Trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Joel Rosario, Malathaat covered the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.94.

Simply Ravishing, the 3-2 favorite, finished last in the six-horse field.

“I think [Malathaat] might be pretty special. We will see if we can get in the Oaks and see what we can get done,’’ Shadwell Stable VP and GM Rick Nichols said.


Gazelle (G3)

Trainer Chad Brown has himself a very nice Kentucky Oaks contender in Search Results, who took charge heading into the far turn and cruised to a 2 ¾-length victory in the 1 1/8-mile Gazelle, giving trainer Irad Ortiz, Jr., his fifth of six wins on the day.

Now unbeaten in three career starts, the filly owned by Klaravich Stables followed pacesetter Alwayz Late before Ortiz asked her for more, and the daughter of Flatter took command with ease, with Maracuja second, and Army Wife third.

With 100 Oaks points for the win, Search Results ($2.80) improves to 150 points and into first place on the leaderboard. Maracuja, trained by Rob Altras, earned her first Oaks points – 40.

Brown, a four-time Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s top trainer, won his third Gazelle, and is looking for his first Oaks victory.

Santa Anita Oaks (G2)

Soothsay ($10.40) soared into the Kentucky Oaks picture after holding off trainer Bob Baffert’s Beautiful Girl in the final strides to win the Santa Anita Oaks by a half-length.

Sent off at 4-1 in the four-horse field, Soothsay is trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, and was ridden by Flavien Prat.

Winning time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:44.35.

“It [the pace] was pretty slow, so I thought twice and said, ‘Let’s go, we better go now,’” said Prat about his bold move heading into the far turn.  “I asked her at the 3-furlong pole, and she went so easy. She responded really well.”

Fantasy (G3)

Pauline’s Pearl ($3.60), the 4-5 favorite, locked up spot in the Oaks with a one-length victory over Ava’s Grace in the Fantasy at Oaklawn Park.

Pauline’s Pearl, ridden by Ricardo Santana, Jr., challenged for the leader after three-quarters, and shook clear to cover the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.60.

Coach, the 3-1 second choice, closed late for third in the field of six. Sun Path was scratched.

 “She’s all class,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Has a tremendous pedigree. She’s gotten better every day. She’s gotten faster with each race. She’s getting extremely good at the perfect time.”