By Ed McNamara
The late, great Woody Stephens loved to talk and was always worth listening to. One of Woody’s pearls of wisdom has stuck with me for a long time. Whenever an odds-on favorite lost, the folksy Hall of Famer would say, “They all get beat.”
That’s happened only once in seven starts to this year’s top 3-year-old, Essential Quality, and it wasn’t his fault. A loss in the chaotic Kentucky Derby always deserves forgiveness, and the rangy gray colt would have won with even a halfway decent trip. Instead, he got into trouble at the start, was wide throughout the 1 1/4 miles and still managed to be fourth, about a length behind front-running Medina Spirit.
Compounding his problems was the need to make up ground on a track that favored speed. The best horse didn’t win, which happens all the time. Anyone who took 1-5 odds on the previously unbeaten Malathaat in the Coaching Club American Oaks got a painful reminder of that.
Essential Quality lived up to his name in his next start with a game victory in the Belmont Stakes. Not many horses can win their debut at 6 furlongs and stay the 1 1/2 miles of the “Test of the Champion.” The son of Tapit returns Saturday at Saratoga in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy, the traditional prep for the Aug. 28 Travers Stakes. He worked 5 furlongs under Luis Saez in 1:00.89 last Saturday over the Spa’s main track.
“Luis was happy with him, so that’s important,” trainer Brad Cox said. “He cooled out well, he scoped great. He seems to have settled in well. He likes it here. I’m very happy where he is at.”
Malathaat faced only three opponents, two fewer than Essential Quality will have in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. He won’t be 1-5 but he will be odds-on. As we learned last weekend, anything can happen at “the Graveyard of Favorites,” but I don’t think the fate of the best 3-year-old colt will be the same as the leading 3-year-old filly’s.
Besides talent, versatility is Essential Quality’s greatest strength. He’s won on the lead, stalking and coming from behind, which few horses accomplish in a career, never mind their first seven races. But could he bounce off a very hard race in the Belmont? Well, you can’t rule that out, especially at Saratoga.
The Jim Dandy is the middle leg of an all-stakes pick 3 at the Spa. Let’s see if we can hit it.
Mischevious Alex (2) may have run his best race ever last time — a close third in the Grade 1 Met Mile, his only loss in four starts since being switched from John Servis to Saffie Joseph, Jr. He’s 2-for-2 at 6 furlongs, which I always considered his best distance, and he should be tough in this very competitive sprint. There’s plenty of speed in here, and Alex’s ability to sit off a fast pace and finish well is a big edge. He’ll be my win play.
For the pick 3, I’ll also use two of the country’s top older sprinters, 6-year-old Firenze Fire (3) and 8-year-old Whitmore (6). Firenze Fire sends mixed signals — 7-for-13 at the distance but 1-for-7 overall at Saratoga. Whitmore has lost a step but he’s 22-for-26 at 6 furlongs and has a win, a second and a third in three tries at Saratoga. I’ll also toss in Special Reserve (9), who has improved dramatically (3-for-4) since being claimed by the very hot Mike Maker.
If Essential Quality (5) is himself, he shouldn’t have trouble with a group that’s not in his league. I’ll single him, because even if he’s only 85 or 90%, I don’t think Weyburn and Masqueparade, the likely second and third favorites, are good enough to knock him off.
Bill Mott is doing his best Chad Brown impression by entering three horses in a grass marathon. Brown has two.
Mott’s top contender looks like Channel Maker (5), a 7-year-old gelding with excellent speed who can run all day and likes Saratoga (2-1-1 in six starts). I’ll also use defending champion Cross Border (2), who’s 5-for-6 at the track, 2-for-2 at the distance; as well as Grade 1 winner Channel Cat (1) and Mott’s Red Knight (6).
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.