By Christina Bossinakis
Godolphin has been riding a high since annexing last weekend's GI Dubai World Cup with homebred Mystic Guide (Ghostzapper) and the operation looks to assert its dominance in the sophomore division Saturday with a pair of TDN Rising Stars, defending juvenile champion Essential Quality (Tapit), slated to run in Keeneland's GII Toyota Blue Grass S. and Aqueduct's GII Wood Memorial contender Prevalence (Medaglia d'Oro).
Essential Quality earned his Rising Star status courtesy of a four-length victory sprinting six panels at Churchill Downs last September before handling his step up to graded company with aplomb, taking the 8 1/2-furlong GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity in October and tied up a championship with a win in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland Nov. 6.
“I think one of his better races might have been his maiden race,” said Godolphin USA President Jimmy Bell. “We needed a race just to get him started. [In his debut], he showed athleticism and speed going short and won by daylight. He then jumped right into the deep end and won the Futurity and Breeders' Cup. Not many can do that and that's really what sets him apart. He's quite versatile and athletic and with a very good mind. When you put all those things together, it can occasionally get you these kinds of results.”
Drawing post 4, the Feb. 27 GIII Southwest S. winner will be partnered by Luis Saez, aboard for his last three starts in addition to last weekend's World Cup winner Mystic Guide. Bell indicated that trainer Brad Cox outlined a 3-year-old pre-Derby campaign soon after the Breeders' Cup, and the Derby pre-amble would consist of only a pair of preps, including the Blue Grass, which was targeted largely because of its timing and the colt's obvious affinity for Keeneland.
Standing in stark contrast to Essential Quality, who has already cemented his spot in the May 1 GI Kentucky Derby, stablemate Prevalence will have to earn his stripes in top company to earn a ticket to Louisville. Earning Rising Star billing following a flashy 8 1/2-length win going seven panels at Gulfstream Jan. 23, the homebred followed-up with another victory while adding a furlong against optional claiming company at the Hallandale oval Mar. 11.
“A lot of time you get that 'wow' first performance and they go back over for the second race and it's not always the same result,” said Bell. “They are a little more tuned in to what it's all about. In fairness, it was his lifetime second start. That was one of the blessings we had coming back in an allowance race. He had good experiences in both races and he learned something in both races. That's what gives us a little more confidence about stepping into graded stakes and stepping up in distance. Both his races were learning experiences and progressive steps that served us well.”
Since his latest win, the Brendan Walsh trainee returned to work a bullet four furlongs, the fastest of 30 moves at the distance, at Palm Meadows Mar. 28.
“He came out of his last work with a bullet. He went in :47.60 and galloped out as easy as you can–it said it all right there,” explained Bell. “From Brendan's perspective, he's an easy horse to read, you know where he's at and what he's feeling. The timing of the Wood Memorial was good timing for him to make that next progressive step.”
Asked whether it might be too tall of an order for such an inexperienced horse, Bell added, “The hope is for the horse to tell us what we are going to do next and we felt this is the opportunity to do that. He's going to need to be able to travel and he's going to be facing stiffer competition. Certainly, he's been brilliant at the short distance races, but what does he look like going a mile and an eighth? When the race is over, he will have answered all of those questions which will point us in one direction or another. And that's really what we want to do. We want to let him show us what he is or isn't capable of at this stage. It's a progression.”
And what would it mean for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and the entire Godolphin team to finally get the chance to hoist the blanket of roses on Derby day?
“It's hard to imagine because it's such an illusive place to get to,” said Bell. “It is one of the most prestigious races, or the most prestigious race, in the world in many people's minds. And it is what everyone who has a talented 3-year-old colt at this time of the year points toward. [Sheikh Mohammed] is so philosophical about these types of races and opportunities that, in time, patience will prevail and if it's meant to be, it will happen. The great news is that there has never been an ounce of pressure. It is just that everyone would like to see it happen. From His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, he is above all an astute horseman and understands probably better than we do. He is just excited to have opportunities and even more excited that a couple of these are hombreds as well. He makes it very easy because he is very understanding and has a great outlook on things.”