After the surprise of Bourbonic, a 72/1 longshot, earning a trip to the Kentucky Derby by shocking the field in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday, the horse racing world may have been eager for a return to normalcy. Enter Essential Quality at the $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, a 1/2 favorite and one of the top contenders for the Triple Crown.
The unbeaten Brad Cox colt entered the race with 40 qualifying points, not enough to guarantee entry into the Kentucky Derby. Down the stretch in the 100-40-20-10 Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifier, he ran like it, battling spirited 3/1 challenger Highly Motivated to the finish.
Just when it looked like Essential Quality would have to settle for a runner-up finish on his way to Churchill Downs on May 1, he pulled in front just strides from the finish to win by a neck. It's unlikely with a 20-horse field in the Derby that the duel will be duplicated, but it would be a great thing for horse racing fans if it is.
The two favorites dominated the race and pulled away down the stretch, leaving third-place 24/1 Rombauer over five lengths behind. It was another four lengths back to 20/1 Hidden Stash in fourth.
Triple Crown hopeful Keepmeinmind never got into the mix and failed in his bid to gain an invitation to the Kentucky Derby.
Points and payouts
Essential Quality grabbed the qualifying points lead with a total of 140 and earned $480,000 for the Blue Grass Stakes victory. He paid $3.00, $2.20 and $2.10 and will head to the Kentucky Derby as the clear favorite regardless of what happens at this week's Arkansas Derby.
With the 40 points he garnered for second place for a total of 50, Highly Motivated will get another shot at Essential Quality at Churchill Downs. He picked up $160,000 from the total purse and paid $3.40 and $2.80.
Rombauer's third-place finish earned him 20 points and put him in 21st place in the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, on the bubble for advancing. The Michael McCarthy-trained colt made $80,000 and paid $5.40 for the show bet.
The fourth-place finish probably left Hidden Stash too far back in the standings at 23rd to earn a Kentucky Derby invitation, but he did end up with a $40,000 payday for his connections while finishing out of the money for race bettors.