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Jon White: 2021 Travers Stakes Picks | Saturday, August 28

by Jon White

August 26, 2021

There are a number of parallels between Essential Quality and one of the all-time great Thoroughbreds in the history of American racing, Native Dancer.

As shown below, Native Dancer ranks high on my list of the Top 25 Racehorses of the 20th and 21st Centuries to have raced in North America:

1. Man o’ War
2. Secretariat*
3. Citation*
4. Kelso
5. Spectacular Bid
6. Native Dancer
7. Dr. Fager
8. Seattle Slew*
9. Count Fleet*
10. Affirmed*
11. Ruffian
12. Swaps
13. Phar Lap
14. Forego
15. American Pharoah*
16. Buckpasser
17. Damascus
18. Round Table
19. Seabiscuit
20. War Admiral*
21. Tom Fool
22. Colin
23. John Henry
24. Zenyatta
25. Regret

*Triple Crown winner.

In 1952, Native Dancer was an undefeated 2-year-old male champion. Ditto Essential Quality in 2020.

In 1953, Native Dancer lost only once going into the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Ditto Essential Quality in 2021.

Native Dancer’s only defeat prior to the Travers had come in the Kentucky Derby. Going into this Saturday’s running of the Grade I, $1.25 million Travers, Essential Quality’s lone defeat likewise came in the Run for the Roses.

In yet another similarity between Essential Quality and Native Dancer, a case can be made that they were the best horse in the race when not winning the Kentucky Derby as the favorite.

Native Dancer lost the 1953 Kentucky Derby by just a head when he finished second. The winner was 24-1 Dark Star.

This is from the 1953 Kentucky Derby chart: “NATIVE DANCER, roughed at the first turn by MONEY BROKER, was eased back to secure racing room, raced wide during the run to the upper turn, then saved ground entering the stretch and finished strongly, but could not overtake the winner, although probably best.”

Essential Quality lost the 2021 Kentucky Derby by one length when he finished fourth. First across the finish line was 12-1 Medina Spirit.

According to Trakus, Essential Quality traveled 68 feet (approximately seven to eight lengths) farther than Medina Spirit.

Brad Cox trains Essential Quality. After the Kentucky Derby, Cox gave credit to Medina Spirit for his victory, calling it a “huge, huge performance” on his part to go as fast as he did early, then keep going and win.

But when Cox then was asked if he believed that Essential Quality might have been the best horse in the race because of his wide trip, the trainer was quick to respond.

“I do,” Cox said. “I think he was the best horse. People can say what they want, but he was beaten a length and ran 68 feet further than the winner.”

In my Kentucky Derby recap for Xpressbet.com, I speculated that Essential Quality would be “the Kentucky Derby starter who quite possibly will emerge from the race with the best Thoro-Graph number.”

When it comes to Thoro-Graph, a lower number is better than a higher one. This is the opposite of Beyer Speed Figures.

Thoro-Graph takes many more factors into account than the Beyers. According to Thoro-Graph, “each number on a sheet represents a performance rating arrived at by using time of the race, beaten lengths, ground lost or saved on the turns, weight carried, and any effects wind conditions had on the time of the race.”

Medina Spirit received a career-best 102 Beyer Speed Figure for his Kentucky Derby win. Essential Quality’s Beyer for that race was a 100, also his top figure until he posted a 109 when he won the Grade I Belmont Stakes at 1 1/2 miles by 1 1/4 lengths as a 13-10 favorite on June 5.

It turned out that Essential Quality did indeed get a better Thoro-Graph number in the Kentucky Derby than Medina Spirit. In fact, Essential Quality received the best Thoro-Graph number of all 19 Derby participants.

Below are the Thoro-Graph numbers for the first seven finishers in the Kentucky Derby:

Finish Horse (Thoro-Graph Number)

4. Essential Quality (negative 1/4)
3. Hot Rod Charlie (1/2)
2. Mandaloun (1 1/4)
1. Medina Spirit (1 1/2)
5. O Besos (3)
6. Midnight Bourbon (3)
7. Keepmeinmind (4)

Below are the Beyer Speed Figures for the first seven finishers in the Kentucky Derby:

Finish Horse (Beyer Speed Figure)

1. Medina Spirit (102)
2. Mandaloun (101)
3. Hot Rod Charlie (100)
4. Essential Quality (100)
5. O Besos (94)
6. Midnight Bourbon (90)
7. Keepmeinmind (90)

Essential Quality goes into the Travers off a half-length win in Saratoga’s Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at 1 1/8 miles as the 2-5 favorite. His margin of victory is quite misleading in terms of his superiority that day because he raced so wide, somewhat similar to his trip in the Kentucky Derby.

According to Trakus, Essential Quality traveled 38 feet (approximately four lengths) farther than runner-up Keepmeinmind.

Odds-on favoritism is something else Essential Quality most likely is going to have in common with Native Dancer.

Sent away at 1-20 in the Travers, Native Dancer proved a punctual favorite when he registered a 5 1/2-length triumph.

My colleague David Aragona has established Essential Quality as the 4-5 favorite on the Travers morning line.

Will Essential Quality, like Native Diver, win the Travers? I think so. But whenever an important race is run at Saratoga, there is always a lingering concern that an odds-on favorite might lose at the “graveyard of favorites,” a la Man o’ War (who was upset by the aptly named Upset), Gallant Fox (Jim Dandy), Secretariat (Onion) and American Pharoah (Keen Ice).

Below are my Travers selections:

1. Essential Quality
2. Dynamic One
3. Keepmeinmind
4. King Fury

From the rail out, the Travers field consists of Midnight Bourbon (9-2 morning-line odds), Essential Quality (4-5), Keepmeinmind (6-1), Dynamic One (6-1), Miles D (121), Masqueparade (8-1) and King Fury (15-1).

Essential Quality has already defeated five of his six Travers foes once or more. He has never run against Miles D.

Cox has indicated Essential Quality has trained quite well for the Travers, which does not bode well for those opposing the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male of 2020.

“He’s sharp, mentally,” Cox said Wednesday, according to NYRA communications. “He’s sharper for this race than going into the Jim Dandy. My plan all along was to have him peak in this spot. Our goal since the Kentucky Derby was to have him at his best Travers Day and from a mental and physical standpoint, I feel he’s right where we want him. I feel like he’s as good as he’s ever been.”

The way I see it, Dynamic One looms the biggest threat to the big Travers favorite. Yes, Dynamic One received little support in the wagering to the tune of 45-1 and finished 31 1/4 lengths behind Essential Quality in the Kentucky Derby. But I believe Dynamic One’s next race, a victory in Saratoga’s Curlin Stakes, makes him very dangerous this Saturday.

Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher has always held Dynamic One in high regard.
The Kentucky-bred Union Rags colt trailed early in the Curlin and rallied to win going away by 1 3/4 lengths. Dynamic One completed 1 1/8 miles on a wet track rated good in 1:49.36. The next day, Essential Quality won the Jim Dandy, which was contested on a fast track, in 1:49.92 for the same distance.

Keepmeinmind, trained by Robertino Diodoro, gave Essential Quality a run for his money in the Jim Dandy. Keepmeinmind finished a close second at odds of 9-1.

Can Keepmeinmind finally outrun Essential Quality this Saturday? They have met five times. Keepmeinmind has finished behind Essential Quality all five times.

I consider King Fury an intriguing Travers entrant at a morning-line price of 15-1. I think he could possibly hit the board or maybe -- just maybe -- even pull off an upset.

In Keeneland’s Grade III Lexington Stakes on April 10, King Fury roared home from 10 lengths off the pace to win by 2 3/4 lengths on a sloppy track for trainer Kenny McPeek. That was an especially impressive effort in that it was King Fury’s first start of the year.

King Fury then created quite a buzz going into the Kentucky Derby because of the splendid manner in which had trained. Unfortunately, after being entered in the 1 1/4-mile classic, King Fury was scratched due to spiking a fever.

After missing the Kentucky Derby, King Fury gave a good account of himself in the Grade III Ohio Derby at Thistledown on June 26. Masqueparade won the 1 1/8-mile affair by a half-length. King Fury nosed out Keepmeinmind for second.

McPeek had wanted to run King Fury in the Jim Dandy. However, McPeek was precluded from doing so as a consequence of a case of equine herpesvirus found in a horse stabled in the same barn as King Fury but not trained by McPeek.

As a Plan B, McPeek decided to try King Fury on the grass for the first time in the Grade I Saratoga Derby at 1 3/16 miles on Aug. 7. The Kentucky-bred Curlin colt finished 10th in the field of 11.

“The horse, unfortunately, didn’t get to run in the Jim Dandy,” McPeek said Wednesday. “He ran really well in the Ohio Derby. [I was] thinking the Jim Dandy would be a great prep for the Travers. In hindsight, I think we should have scratched [in the Saratoga Derby] because he drew the 11 [post] and [raced] wide and wider on both turns. I wish I could un-ring that bell, but that doesn’t happen. It’s a shame he didn’t get to run in the Jim Dandy, but it is what it is. We think he’ll perform well this weekend.”

McPeek said King Fury’s morning-line odds “surprised” him to be so high after King Fury “ran right with” Keepmeinmind and Masqueparade in the Ohio Derby.

“We split those two,” McPeek said, “and we really thought we could make a case that he should have won that day. He got shuffled back in the second turn and had to rally and still almost won the race. He’s a good colt and he’s going to make his presence felt [in the Travers].”

Perhaps I’m taking Midnight Bourbon more lightly than I should. He ran sixth after a troubled start in the Kentucky Derby, then finished second in the Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 15.

In the Grade I Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on July 17, Midnight Bourbon vied for the early lead. However, after passing the eighth pole during the stretch drive, Midnight Bourbon unseated Paco Lopez. Hot Rod Charlie finished first, then was disqualified for drifting in and causing Midnight Bourbon to clip heels and unseat his rider. The stewards elevated Mandaloun to first.

Not counting the Haskell, Midnight Bourbon has finished third or better in eight of nine starts. Talk about a gem of consistency. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen trains the Kentucky-bred colt by 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow.

Masqueparade, trained by Al Stall Jr., romped to an 11 3/4-length win in a 1 1/8-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Churchill Downs on May 1. Off that dominant victory, I picked him to win the Ohio Derby, which he did as the 2-1 favorite.

Even though Masqueparade did not win the Jim Dandy, it’s not as if he ran a stinker. He lost by 2 3/4 lengths while finishing third. I think the Kentucky-bred Upstart colt still has some upside and could make some noise in the Travers.

With just three career starts under his belt, Miles D is by far the lightest in terms of experience among the Travers entrants. He does bring an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern of 77, 85 and 95 into Saturday’s race. The 95 came when he finished a respectable second in the Curlin.

Chad Brown trains Miles D. The Kentucky-bred Curlin colt showed enough in his most recent race to suggest cavalierly dismissing him in the Travers probably is not a good idea.


If Essential Quality gets the job done this Saturday, Cox will become only the third trainer to win the Travers and Whitney Stakes in the same year with different horses.

The feat has not been accomplished since trainer John M. Gaver Sr. in 1942 won the Travers with Shut Out and the Whitney with Swing and Sway.

In 1931, trainer James Rowe Jr. won the Travers with Twenty Grand and the Whitney with St. Brideaux.

Cox sent out Knicks Go to win this year’s Whitney.


Tapit, the sire of Kentucky-bred Essential Quality, became the all-time leading North American sire by career progeny earnings last Sunday, according to Daily Racing Form’s Nicole Russo.

“Through Sunday, the career progeny earnings for Tapit, a 20-year-old son of Pulpit standing at Gainesway, stood at $172,904,804. That took him past Giant’s Causeway, who died in 2018, at $172,560,764.


Tripoli, impeccably ridden by Tiago Pereira, came from just off the pace to win Del Mar’s Grade I, $1 million Pacific Classic by 1 1/4 lengths last Saturday at odds of 6-1. Tizamagician, also off at 6-1, finished second. Dr Post, 7-2 in the wagering, came on to end up third in a rather weird trip in that he droppped back to last momentarily going into the far turn when it looked like he was going to run a clunker.

In Del Mar’s Grade II San Diego Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on July 17, Express Train, Tripoli and Royal Ship finished close together. Express Train won by a half-length. Tripoli was the runner-up. Royal Ship finished third, three-quarters of a length behind Tripoli.

But these three horses did not finish close together in the Pacific Classic. Express Train finished sixth as the 2-1 favorite and my top pick. Royal Ship came in seventh as the 5-2 second choice.

Tripoli provided owners Hronis Racing and trainer John Sadler a third Pacific Classic victory in the last four years. The same owner-trainer team took Del Mar’s signature race with Accelerate in 2018 and Higher Power in 2019.

Kitten’s Joy is the sire of Kentucky-bred Tripoli. Considering Kitten’s Joy was the Eclipse Award-winning turf male of 2004, it’s not surprising that Tripoli made his first 11 starts on the grass, winning twice.

However, since being switched to the dirt, Tripoli has improved significantly. His top Beyer Speed Figure on the turf was an 88. In three starts on the dirt, Tripoli has recorded Beyers of 100 twice and 104 in the Pacific Classic.

Notably, Tripoli became Kitten’s Joy’s first Grade I dirt winner.

Below are the Beyers for the Pacific Classic winners going back to the first running in 1991 (the figures prior to this year are listed in the 2021 American Racing Manual, which is now digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website):

2021 Tripoli (104)
2020 Maximum Security (107)
2019 Higher Power (107)
2018 Accelerate (115)
2017 Collected (115)
2016 California Chrome (113)
2015 Beholder (114)
2014 Shared Belief (115)*
2013 Game On Dude (113)*
2012 Dullahan (111)*
2011 Acclamation (105)*
2010 Richard’s Kid (96)*
2009 Richard’s Kid (107)*
2008 Go Between (104)*
2007 Student Council (99)*
2006 Lava Man (109)
2005 Borrego (113)
2004 Pleasantly Perfect (112)
2003 Candy Ride (123)
2002 Came Home (116)
2001 Skimming (119)
2000 Skimming (118)
1999 General Challenge (119)
1998 Free House (117)
1997 Gentlemen (121)
1996 Dare and Go (116)
1995 Tinners Way (112)
1994 Tinners Way (111)
1993 Bertrando (117)
1992 Missionary Ridge (110)
1991 Best Pal (118)

*Run on synthetic footing.

The 2020 Pacific Classic turned out to be the final victory of Maximum Security’s career. He would go on to finish second in the Grade I Awesome Again Stakes and fifth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic before being retired to stud.


Speaking of Maximum Security, one wonders which will happen first: The final purse distribution for the 2020 Saudi Cup or a human being sets foot on the planet Mars?

The inaugural running of the $20 million Saudi Cup was held on Feb. 29, 2020. As far as I know, there still has been no final purse distribution for that race, which was won by Maximum Security. Midnight Bisou finished second. Benbatl came in third.

“Final purse distribution from the 2020 Saudi Cup could come within six weeks, the head of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia said in the hours before this year’s running of the world’s richest race,” Bob Kieckhefer wrote in a BloodHorse story last Feb. 20.

“The minor awards from the 2020 Cup have been paid. But the $10 million winner’s share was frozen by Saudi officials pending the resolution of doping charges involving Jason Servis, who at the time trained the Luis Saez-ridden winner, Maximum Security.

“Maximum Security raced last year for owners Gary and Mary West and for the Coolmore Stud-affiliated Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith.

“Second across the finish line under Mike Smith in the Saudi Cup was Midnight Bisou, running for owners Bloom Racing Stable, Madaket Stables and Allen Racing and trainer Steve Asmussen.

“Jockey Club chairman Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal, interviewed by broadcaster Nick Luck on the international feed from the Feb. 20 renewal, said he hopes the wait is nearly over.”

Nearly over? It’s been six month months since Saudi Jockey Club chairman Prince Bandar bin Khalid Al Faisal said he hoped the wait was nearly over, yet the wait continues. I can’t help thinking there just might be a human walking around on Mars before the $10 million winner’s share of the 2020 Saudi Cup purse is finally paid out. Have the connections of any horse in the history of racing ever had to wait so long to find out whether or not they are going to get the winner’s share of a purse?

It’s beyond ridiculous.


There was a scary chain-reaction seven-horse spill in Del Mar’s seventh race last Sunday.

In a story written by Daily Racing Form’s Steve Andersen, “none of the horses involved in the incident appeared to suffer injuries, according to a track official.”

Thank goodness for that.

Sassy Chassey, ridden by apprentice Diego Herrera, fell approaching the three-eighths pole due to clipping the heels of Katie’s Paradies, who was vying for the lead with Scream and Shout.

In the chain reaction, the following jockeys were unseated in addition to Herrera: apprentice Cesar Ortega (who rode Backtoflash), Kyle Frey (Whiskey Blue), apprentice Ellie Ellingwood (Siena Silk), Tyler Baze (Renegade Princess), Pereira (Phoenix Tears) and apprentice Juan Espinoza (Corners Up).

All of the riders involved in the incident reportedly escaped serious injury.

Again, thank goodness for that.

That chain-reaction incident could have turned out much, much worse in terms of the horses and riders involved.

Stewards Grant Baker, Luis Jauregui and Kim Sawyer properly declared the race a “no contest.” In making that decision, they cited a California Horse Racing Board rule that states “stewards may declare a race no contest if mechanical failure or interference during the running of the race affects the majority of horses in such race.”

Indeed, seven of the 12 horses competing in Del Mar’s seventh race last Sunday were affected by the incident.

What occurred in that Del Mar race demonstrated what easily could have happened on the far turn in the 2019 Kentucky Derby. I don’t think enough people get that.

The 2019 Run for the Roses is the race in which Maximum Security finished first by 1 3/4 lengths, but then was disqualified and placed 17th by the stewards. Maximum Security had his number taken down when the stewards ruled that he had drifted out and caused interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy on the far turn.

It was the first time in the history of the Kentucky Derby that the winner has been disqualified for an incident during the running of the race.

As I recently wrote, having watched the video of that race numerous times, I believe it’s nothing less than a miracle that War of Will did not clip Maximum Security’s heels on the far turn. Horse racing was extremely lucky that Maximum Security did not trigger a major spill when he veered out and caused interference.

“If War of Will had tripped and fallen to unseat jockey Tyler Gaffalione, it would have happened with many horses racing behind them,” I wrote. “In all likelihood, there would have been a multi-horse spill similar to a horrific pile-up on a freeway. Numerous horses and jockeys could have been severely injured, or possibly even worse. No doubt such a grisly scene would have been shown over and over and over on television and depicted on social media, which would have given horse racing the blackest of black eyes during a very sensitive time in the sport.”


I wrote last week that a New York track should name a race in honor of Secretariat now that evidently there will be no more racing at Arlington Park. Arlington for years had run the Secretariat Stakes.

I implored the folks at the New York Racing Association to come up with a race named after Secretariat.

“And I am not talking about some minor stakes race,” I wrote. “New York should have an IMPORTANT race named after the 1973 Triple Crown winner.

“It actually makes more sense for New York rather than Arlington to have a Secretariat Stakes anyway. Secretariat made 15 of his 21 career starts at New York tracks. He raced at Arlington Park just once.”

My idea was to rename the Belmont Derby, a Grade I race at 1 1/4 miles on the grass, either the Secretariat Stakes or Secretariat Derby. After all, Secretariat was undefeated on the grass. In his two grass starts, he won the Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park and the Canadian International at Woodbine.

“Besides,” I wrote, “it makes a lot more sense to have a Secretariat Stakes or Secretariat Derby on the grass than a Man o’ War Stakes on the grass. That’s because Man o’ War never raced on the grass.”

In Monday’s Thoroughbred Daily News, Bill Finley noted that without a Secretariat Stakes at Arlington, “the sport no longer has a major race named in honor of the GOAT. That can’t be.”

Finley’s idea was to “rename the Belmont Stakes the Secretariat Stakes and to do so for the 2023 running, the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic 31-length romp in the Belmont.”

Finley then admitted, “Okay, that’s never going to happen.” But Finley went on to offer a suggestion that I do like.

“Limiting the list to races he won in New York, the best candidate is the Grade I Hopeful Stakes,” Finley wrote. “Secretariat won that in 1972, so next year’s running is the 50th anniversary of that win. Naming the race after the greatest horse ever to step foot on a New York track would be a fitting honor.”

While I do not agree with Finley’s assertion that Secretariat is the greatest horse ever to step foot on a New York track (I believe it is Man o’ War), I wholeheartedly agree with Finley’s suggestion to change the Hopeful to the Secretariat.


In the wake of her victory in last Saturday’s Grade I Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, Malathaat moved back into the Top 10 in the NTRA Top Thoroughred Poll this week after being tied for 20th in last week’s rankings.

Sent off as the heavy Alabama favorite at 1-2, Malathaat did not let her many backers down when she prevailed by 1 1/2 lengths on a wet main track listed as good.

Malathaat now has won six of seven lifetime starts. Her lone blemish came when she finished second on July 24 in Saratoga’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks, which she lost by a head. Maracuja, who won the CCA Oaks, finished seventh and last in the Alabama at odds of 6-1.

Below is the Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 359 Knicks Go (30)
2. 320 Letruska (5)
3. 271 Essential Quality (1)
4. 237 Maxfield
5. 156 Domestic Spending (1)
6. 135 Silver State
7. 90 Gamine
8. 85 Malathaat
9. 65 Hot Rod Charlie
10. 55 Shedaresthedevil