Jul. 29—SARATOGA SPRINGS — We know how good Essential Quality is.
This weekend at Saratoga Race Course provides an opportunity to see how good some of the other 3-year-old colts are, including several who are on the rise after having started their racing careers on the late side.
That opportunity comes in the form of two nine-furlong races that should serve as steppingstones to the Aug. 28 Travers, Friday's Curlin and Saturday's Grade II Jim Dandy, for which the 2-year-old male champion Essential Quality is the 1-2 morning-line favorite.
One horse who will be watched closely is First Captain, the 7-5 Curlin favorite who was purchased for $1.5 million at the 2019 Saratoga Select Yearling Sale and has started just three times since debuting in April.
But everyone is chasing Essential Quality.
"All's well," trainer Brad Cox said Thursday morning. "He's doing great, he stood in the [starting] gate this morning, backed out and had a good gallop. We'll school him [in the paddock] later, and, yeah, I think he's set up for a really big effort, I really do."
Essential Quality will break from the No. 5 post in the six-horse Jim Dandy field and will be ridden by Luis Saez, who has been aboard for every one of his seven career starts except for his career debut in September, when Shaun Bridgmohan guided Essential Quality to a four-length win at Churchill Downs.
The colt, a Godolphin homebred sired by Tapit, has lost just once, a fourth to Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby, after which he won the Belmont Stakes by outdueling Hot Rod Charlie.
Essential Quality posted his first published workout on the Saratoga main track in July 10 and has been training as if he'll take to the surface when he races over it, too, Cox said.
"I think a lot of it comes from his pedigree, too," he said. "I think these Tapits tend to do well on the NYRA tracks. I think it goes back to the A.P. Indy line, being a Tapit-Pulpit-A.P. Indy, they tend to be horses that can get through these demanding tracks. He's got a ton of stamina. So we're in a good spot with him."
The field includes long shots from the barns of Todd Pletcher (Dr Jack) and Chad Brown (Risk Taking); Grade III Ohio Derby winner Masqueparade; Grade III Gotham winner Weyburn; and Keepmeinmind, who has run in graded stakes company for all five of his 2021 starts and is still looking for a victory this year. He was seventh in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness.
"There's some really good horses in there," Cox said. "Obviously, the Ohio Derby winner, he's a Grade III winner, and it's time for him to get his opportunity at better competition, and he is. Jimmy's horse [Jimmy Jerkens-trained Weyburn] is a nice horse who ran a nice race against Mandaloun last time.
"So there's horses that are on the path toward the Travers, and this is the race. You kind of need to get a race over the track, get a feel for the surface and see if you can show up and be effective in the Travers.
Masqueparade has had a pretty busy 2021, with five starts, but is one of the up-and-coming colts trying to gain a firmer foothold in the division, since he didn't break his maiden until March 20, through disqualification.
He snapped off a 97 Beyer speed figure in winning an allowance at Churchill by 11 3/4 lengths on Kentucky Derby Day before beating an Ohio Derby field at Thistledown that included the highly regarded King Fury and Keepmeinmind.
"He showed life in every one of his races, but he didn't win 'em," trainer Al Stall Jr. said. "The sprint, he closed well and galloped out well. In the second race he got in a lot of trouble. Third race, he kind of ran like a snake down the stretch, and then the fourth race he was trying to come back on the horse that got DQd and was put up. So all those battles he was in probably toughened him up to run such a nice race on Derby Day [in the allowance]."
Masqueparade has breezed twice on the Saratoga main track and will get regular jockey Miguel Mena in for the ride.
In the Ohio Derby, he sat just off the pace and was able to close well to beat King Fury by a half-length.
"We were looking for a little uptick, and the best thing about the Ohio Derby is the race on [Kentucky] Derby Day was against the clock, which was great, the numbers were good, but there's nothing like good competition," Stall said. "The Ohio Derby, you had three graded stakes winners who all ran their 'A' races.
"And he was traveling really nicely ahead of them, and when they came up to him, he got set down and held them off. I thought that was as good a race as any just because of the quality of the competition. They hadn't had a field like that years."
In Friday's ungraded $120,000 Curlin, First Captain's connections are looking for a breakout performance to catapult him to the Travers.
Trainer Shug McGaughey said he had the colt, one of two horses in the Curlin who were sired by Curlin, ready to race in July of last year, but the horse got hurt, and they had to take a step back.
Since April 24, First Captain is undefeated from three starts, most recently the Grade III Dwyer at Belmont Park.
"We're getting into deep water now," McGaughey said. "This Friday — and then if he makes the Travers — it'll be deep water. But if he's got the ability, we'll give him a chance."
At $1.5 million, First Captain was the co-sales topper at the 2019 Saratoga yearling auction, and two other yearlings went for $1 million each.
So expectations have been high for the colt, who is co-owned by partners West Point Thoroughbreds, Siena Farm, Bobby Flay and Woodford Racing.
"We always feel good, right? But the real question is no one ever knows," said Anthony Manganaro, the chairman of the Paris, Kentucky-based Siena Farm, named for the town in Tuscany, Italy.
"If you've been in this business, you can't be impatient, whether it's a 5,000 claimer or a $5 million, you can't be impatient. I guess pressure is self-imposed. It depends on who you are and who it is. Certainly, there's no pressure on the horse. He doesn't know."
The other son of Curlin in the Curlin is Miles D, even more lightly raced than First Captain, with just two starts.
He broke his maiden by 2 1/4 lengths on June 12 at Belmont and, like First Captain, did not come cheaply.
Miles D was purchased for $470,000 at the 2019 Keeneland sale, and co-owned by Peter Brant and Robert LaPenta. Trainer Chad Brown said expectations were high for Miles D last year, but, like First Captain, injury limited him to just a debut try in October.
"Miles D is a nice horse, we've always thought a lot of him," Brown said. "He was one of my main Derby hopes, really. He had all the markings to maybe get on the trail, and then that happened and I missed everything.
"I've been waiting to run him in the Curlin. He probably doesn't have the seasoning to catch up that fast, but I'm going to give him a chance."