Essential Quality leads field at Blue Grass Stakes

The $800,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland hosts a quality nine-horse field with five Kentucky Derby prep race winners entered, including Triple Crown favourite Essential Quality.

The 100-40-20-10 contest is one of three taking place on Saturday afternoon, with only one left on April 10 that will finalise the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby.

Along with the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct Park and the Santa Anita Derby at the track of the same name, the Blue Grass Stakes offers horse racing fans an exciting trio of races.

As many as four horses in the Blue Grass field could earn invitations to the Kentucky Derby, but the number is more likely to be two or three, especially if Essential Quality takes care of business as expected.

Can the favourite deliver?

Essential Quality is an overwhelming choice to win at 3/5 odds. The Brad Cox-trained favourite is undefeated in four starts, with the last three Kentucky Derby qualifying races.

The highest point total was in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on November 6 at Keeneland, where he also won the Breeders' Cup Futurity a month earlier.

His latest outing was in the postponed Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, on February 27. The stakes are increased, and the field toughens for the Blue Grass, with Essential Quality's 40 qualifying points not quite enough to ensure entry into the Kentucky Derby.

It looks like Essential Quality's race to lose, which is exactly what happened to favorites Mandaloun in the Louisiana Derby and Greatest Honour in the Florida Derby. Although those horses had locked up Kentucky Derby berths, Cox needs to make sure jockey Luis Saez is ready to guide his mount to a win.

Top challengers

Highly Motivated is at 3/1, despite lacking a prep series win. His lone stakes win was at the Nyquist Stakes on the same card as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Following a four-month layoff, he managed a third-place finish at the Gotham Stakes to pick up 10 qualifying points. With the depth of the field, those odds seem a bit low given Highly Motivated's limited body of work.

After an impressive win on November 28 in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, Keepmeinmind was idle for three and a half months. He looked rusty and tentative in a disappointing sixth-place finish at the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 13.

At 8/1 odds in the Blue Grass, he would be a good choice for exacta or trifecta wagers behind Essential Quality.

Hush of a Storm is definitely a horse to watch at 15/1 odds. He moves from the synthetic surface at Turfway Park, where he ran his last three races, including most recently a win on February 26 in the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes.

He outran a quality field, including Like the King, who qualified for the Kentucky Derby with a victory in last week's Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway.

After a late run fell short in a fifth-place finish at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile behind a quartet of Kentucky Derby contenders, Rombauer didn't resurface until his win on February 13 at the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Park. He is another entry at 15/1 who could cause problems for the rest of the field.

Hidden Stash at 20/1 and Sittin On Go at 30/1 have also collected qualifying points, but Hidden Stash is without a stakes race win, and Sittin on Go hasn't finished better than sixth in his last four races.

Hidden Stash is coming off a second-place finish to Helium in the Tampa Bay Derby, but the Blue Grass Field is much stronger than what he faced on March 6 at Tampa Bay Downs.

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