Over the past 10 years the betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby (the horse with the lowest odds) has mostly lived up to expectations. The betting public has been razor sharp in that span, keying on six eventual winners of the race and two second-place runners. This year racing pundits and the betting public are set to elevate Essential Quality to the top spot on the Derby odds board. Will the popular choice prove to be correct again?
The Case for Betting On Essential Quality
The case for betting on Essential Quality starts with his undefeated record. Five wins in five races. He’s also the 2-year-old champ from last year. And he appears fit and ready after notching a tough-fought victory in the Bluegrass Stakes. His sire, Tapit, has a well-deserved reputation for producing distance-loving offspring, so extending his efforts an extra eighth of a mile in the Derby shouldn’t be a problem.
Those are the bells and whistles creating the hullabaloo that’ll draw bettors to this horse’s bandwagon. But is there a strong case to be made against him?
Let’s count down four reasons to bet against this seemingly flawless favorite:
Reason 4: EQ’s narrow winning margin in his two most difficult races
The toughest challenge of Essential Quality’s 2-year-old campaign came in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. He won that race by less than a length. So far, the toughest challenge of his 3-year-old campaign came in the Bluegrass Stakes. He won that race by only a neck. So his combined margin of victory in his two toughest races is less than a length.
Put another way, less than one-fifth of a second separates Essential Quality from two rivals who’ll take him on again in the Derby. Rather than betting on EQ at 2-1, it might be wise to bet on a horse with nearly equal talent who can put twice as much money in your pocket with a victory.
Reason 3: Two horses who nearly beat EQ are improving
Hot Rod Charlie, who came just three-quarters of a length shy of defeating Essential Quality in last November’s BC Juvenile, just broke a track record at The Fairgrounds. He did it while winning at a distance of a mile and three sixteenths (nearly the same distance as the Kentucky Derby). And he did it by extending his lead in the final stages after fighting off multiple challenges.
Highly Motivated, a horse who had never raced around two turns, battled Essential Quality all the way to the finish line in the Bluegrass Stakes. He lost to EQ by a slim margin in the final yards. Most horses improve in their second try around two turns, and Highly Motivated might prove to be another case in point in the Derby.
Have these two late-developing 3-year-olds (and possibly others) finally caught up physically and mentally to the early-maturing Essential Quality?
Reason 2: EQ needs runners in front of him to tire late
In EQ’s BC Juvenile win, the early leaders set a blistering pace. All horses on or near the lead tired badly late. In the Bluegrass Stakes, the pacesetter Highly Motivated was running the longest race of his short career and tired a bit in the final yards. In both of these top-level contests, where EQ faced the toughest opponents of his career, the early pace scenario favored his late-running style.
History shows (as documented in my book The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby) that the Kentucky Derby nearly always features at least one horse exceptional enough to set or press a fast pace and persevere all the way to the finish line. Horses like Essential Quality, who’ve never faced the challenge posed by a true Grade 1 speedster, seldom win the Kentucky Derby. Betting on him means you’re betting that no horse among the 19 challengers holds that Grade 1 speed-plus-stamina potential.
Reason 1: He might not handle an honest Grade 1 pace
Essential Quality has never run fast enough in the early segments of a race to qualify for the Gold Standard I set out in my book. My Gold Standard defines the level of early and late speed needed to win the Kentucky Derby in most years.
Only once in the past 10 years has such a horse coming in below that standard crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby. Last year Authentic captured the Covid-delayed Derby without meeting the Gold Standard, but he failed to do so by just one-fifth of a second.
Like Essential Quality, nearly two dozen recent Kentucky Derby entrants had one loss or less entering the Kentucky Derby but didn’t fit my Gold Standard. None of them won. Here’s the list:
- 2020: Money Moves
- 2019: Roadster, Vekoma
- 2018: Audible, Noble Indy
- 2017: Classic Empire, Girvin, McCraken, Irish War Cry
- 2016: Gun Runner, Mohaymen, Outwork, Shagaf
- 2015: Carpe Diem, Materiality
- 2014: Chitu, Samraat
- 2013: Verrazano, Vyjack
- 2012: Gemologist, Hansen, Union Rags
- 2011: Dialed In
Zero for 23. You get the idea. A horse’s winning record prior to the Derby is a poor barometer of quality compared to the speed at which those races were contested.
As I say in my book, “You can teach a fast horse to slow down, but seldom can you teach a slow horse to speed up.” And I’m betting that’s how the story plays out again this year.