Champions are officially crowned through a vote, but their legends are written on the racetrack.
Already a champion, Godolphin's Essential Quality did not record the most important or most memorable victory of his career July 31 when he prevailed at minuscule odds and captured the $582,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds at Saratoga Race Course.
What he showed, by weathering a surprisingly wide trip in a five-horse field and fending off a hard-charging rival in the final yards, is why he was a champion a year ago and is a favorite to add another title this year.
"The really good horses, they just show up and find a way to get things done and he has seemed to have done that for nearly every start," said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA. "This was a hard-fought race. Obviously, he was a little wide but he found a way and overcame what he needed to do to get the job done and that's the mark of a really good horse. When things aren't always your way, they find a way."
On a day when 36,840 fans attended the races and $31,772,948 was wagered, the Jim Dandy will most likely be remembered as Essential Quality's prep race for the Aug. 28 Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1). Yet the homebred son of Tapit digging down and fending off grade 2 winner Keepmeinmind by a half-length, after appearing to be headed for a classic Saratoga upset, explains why he has won seven of eight starts, including the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), and, after vaulting to the top of his division following the Breeders' Cup in November, why he's still on top with the calendar about to flip to August.
"We had a horse slip up inside him that looked like he had some run left, so it made for some anxious moments down the lane," trainer Brad Cox said about the champion 2-year-old male of 2020. "But overall he was very determined and had the heart of a champion. He's a very good horse … he's able to dig in and fight and move on."
Unraced since his June 5 classic win in the Belmont Stakes, the produce of the Elusive Quality mareDelightful Quality figures to benefit from Saturday's tightener when he returns next month for the Travers at the same 1 1/4-mile distance that tripped him up in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) when he finished fourth.
"It was probably good for him, which is easier to say after the race than when they're at the sixteenth pole," Bell said. "He shows that determination, that grit."
Jockey Luis Saez broke from post 5 with Essential Quality and found himself wide from the start as the field basically broke in a line and headed to the first turn.
On the backstretch, Dr Jack, Masqueparade, and Weyburn formed one group on the front end, with Essential Quality, who was four wide into the first turn and five wide on the backstretch, and Keepmeinmind behind them after a half-mile in :47.41.
On the turn for home, as the leaders began to sputter, Saez took the 2-5 favorite ($2.80) four wide and grabbed the lead at the top of the stretch. Though it appeared the gray colt would coast to victory, Joel Rosario and Keepmeinmind came charging into the picture along the rail.
Keepmeinmind, a son of Laoban owned by Cypress Creek Equine, Arnold Bennewith, and Spendthrift Farm, appeared to have momentum on his side, but he ran into a brick wall in the form of Essential Quality, who covered the nine furlongs in 1:49.92 on a fast track and pushed his earnings to $3,545,144.
"I saw (Keepmeinmind) but I had a lot of horse and I knew (my horse) was going to finish," Saez said. "He always fights and he always wants to win."
Keepmeinmind, who would also seem a bona fide Travers candidate for trainer Robertino Diodoro, finished 2 1/4 lengths ahead of FTGGG Racing's Ohio Derby (G3) winner Masqueparade, an Upstart colt trained by Al Stall Jr.
"He was going forward and did everything he could," Rosario said about a colt who third behind Essential Quality in the TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (G1). "He was second-best."
Essential Quality is the fourth foal and first stakes winner for Delightful Quality, whose most recent foal is an unraced 2-year-old filly by Uncle Mo named Famed.
"He's carrying a little more weight now than he was leading up to the Derby or Belmont so I think this was a good tightener for him, four weeks out from the Travers," Cox said. "He's blown up physically. He's put on weight, muscle, and is happy. Hopefully we can see more of that over the next four weeks and get some foundation out of this race in regards to fitness. It was a demanding track and he got the job done."
A job that was accomplished in a manner befitting a champion.