Horse racing is inherently difficult to predict, but add to the mix 20 horses racing at a distance they've never run before in an environment that is charged with tension and excitement, and if the word unpredictable comes to mind, you're on the right track.
There is one horse in the Kentucky Derby field on Saturday that stands out among all the others, but despite Essential Quality's spotless record in five races, he has been anything but dominant in those victories.
The Brad Cox-trained colt, one of two the future Hall of Famer has in the race, led the Road to the Kentucky Derby qualifying points standings with 140, but barely defeated Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes. Essential Quality came from behind to win by a neck as the top two horses easily outdistanced the rest of the field.
The favourite, and he certainly deserves the distinction based on his spotless record, is at odds of 2/1, and that could certainly be driven down by post time given the lack of a strong challenger.
As much as we would like to get on the Essential Quality bandwagon for the Kentucky Derby, there are a number of factors that give us pause.
Lack of a big win
Essential Quality's connections avoided running him in a 50-20-10-5 qualifying race, where he would have faced a greater depth of competition than he did, for example, in the 10-4-2-1 Southwest Stakes. Instead of opting for the Risen Star Stakes, where he would have had to deal with Mandaloun, Midnight Bourbon, Proxy and O Besos, he ended up smoking a field devoid of other Kentucky Derby entries by four-and-a-quarter lengths.
To his credit, the Blue Grass Stakes ended up featuring three other Kentucky Derby entries, but he could just have easily lost to Highly Motivated as won, and that was starting from the fourth position in a nine-horse field. Barely winning the biggest race of his prep series season hardly puts him in American Pharoah territory.
He is starting from the 14th post position, just to the inside of Rock Your World and to the outside of Hidden Stash. That is the farthest outside starting spot in his brief career and he'll be fighting to get closer to the rail, where 6/1 Known Agenda has the inside post position and will be able to set the early pace.
Essential Quality has shown the ability to battle from behind, but in a 20 horse field, there is always the risk of getting caught in traffic coming out of the gate. If he can navigate his way to some clear running space, Essential Quality should be fine, but otherwise, it could be a struggle.
Although all of the horses face the same challenge of stretching an extra furlong beyond their longest career distance, it is still unknown as to how they'll react when pushed that far. For Essential Quality, he showed good closing speed in catching and passing Highly Motivated in the Blue Grass Stakes, but it isn't clear that he could have continued that surge for another eighth of a mile.