The biggest problem horseplayers have with the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes is not figuring out who will win. That essential question will likely be answered by 3/5 favorite Essential Quality.

Essential Quality-Blue Grass
By the time Champion 2-Year-Old Essential Quality finds the stretch, few of his pursuers are this close. He enters Saturday’s Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as the 3/5 morning-line favorite. (Image: Coady Photography)

No. The biggest issue here is figuring out how to profit off a race where one horse is so clearly dominant over his rivals that betting value falls off a cliff.

You often see this scenario in the Preakness Stakes, which usually has the smallest field of the Triple Crown races. What often happens there is the Derby winner opens as a prohibitive favorite and everyone piles in on the other horses, trying to create profitable exactas and trifectas. The result is depressed odds across the board.

We may see something similar at Keeneland in Saturday’s 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass, which offers 100-40-20-10 Derby qualifying points to its top four finishers. That gets the winner and likely the runner up to the Kentucky Derby starting gate in four weeks.

Blue Grass has blue-ribbon pedigree — in the 20th century

Like many of the Derby prep races, history hasn’t been kind to Blue Grass winners this century. Street Sense in 2007 was the last Blue Grass alum who found roses in Louisville. The 2018 Blue Grass winner, Good Magic, finished second to Triple Crown winner Justify in that year’s Derby. And last year’s winner, Art Collector, scratched the week of the Derby with an injury.

But this is a race with a legitimate pedigree of champions. From 1911 to 1937, the Blue Grass ran at the old Kentucky Association racetrack in Lexington. It wasted no time establishing bona-fides, when Meridian won the 1911 Derby after finishing second in the inaugural Blue Grass.

The Blue Grass sent 19 runners to the Churchill Downs winner’s circle, including 10 who turned the Blue Grass/Derby double. That roll call includes the likes of Tomy Lee (1959), Northern Dancer (1964), Lucky Debonair (1965), Forward Pass (1968), Riva Ridge (1972), Spectacular Bid (1979) and Strike the Gold (1991).

We did see a Triple Crown race winner here last year

That said, the Blue Grass did produce a Triple Crown race winner as recently as last year – Swiss Skydiver. She finished second in the Blue Grass to Art Collector, then beat Authentic in the Preakness Stakes.

This is what Essential Quality and his eight counterparts face Saturday. Actually, it’s what everyone else faces trying to chase down last year’s Champion 2-Year-Old. There are several reasons why morning line maker Mike Battaglia threw odds-on numbers on Essential Quality. Reasons that start with his versatile running style.

The Tapit colt is 4-for-4, a record that doesn’t do him justice. Essential Quality has won his races in a variety of ways. He stalked, went outside to the three-hole and pounced at the final furlong pole for a four-length victory in his maiden special weight debut last September.

Essential Quality’s versatility proves his best weapon

In the Breeders’ Futurity, he shifted from stalker to presser, staying no worse than second at any call until he hit the three-quarters pole, whereupon he put away Keepmeinmind for a four-length victory.

In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he went back to stalker. He was in eighth at the half-mile post and sixth at the three-quarter mark. He passed favorite Jackie’s Warrior in deep stretch, then held off a furious charge from Hot Rod Charlie at the wire.

And in the Oaklawn slop in the Southwest Stakes, Essential Quality basically took jockey Luis Saez for a 1 1/16-mile breeze, again stalking the pace and flipping a switch coming out of the far turn. With Saez hand-riding him, Essential Quality opened up down the stretch for a 4 ¼-length victory.

Is Essential Quality a stalker or a presser? Yes

Yes, Essential Quality is a stalker. Yes, he can press the pace. And no, there hasn’t been an answer for him yet.

“One of his better races might have been his maiden race, when (trainer) Brad (Cox) said ‘Let’s just get him going here.’ I know he’s a two-turn horse, but we got to get started and to show his athleticism and speed and all those things going short if you will,” Godolphin US President Jimmy Bell said on a National Thoroughbred Racing Association call.

“And to come through all that and win with daylight and then obviously jump right into the deep end with the Breeders’ Cup, they’re just not many who can do that. And obviously, that’s what sets the apart the most is that he is quite versatile and obviously athletic.”

This year’s Blue Grass is lush with closers

What makes Essential Quality more dangerous here is the lack of front-running speed in this field. With Keepmeinmind (6/1), Rombauer (15/1), Hidden Stash (20/1), Sittin On Go (30/1) and Hush of a Storm (15/1), this year’s Blue Grass is closer-heavy. As if Essential Quality needed any more help, this sets the table even better for him. It allows him to press the pace on whoever plunges ahead early, then pull out his patented outside stretch drive.

Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes/Keeneland

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Hidden Stash, 20/1 (Rafael Bejarano/Victoria Oliver)
  2. Untreated, 10/1 (Joel Rosario/Todd Pletcher)
  3. Highly Motivated, 3/1 (Javier Castellano/Chad Brown)
  4. Essential Quality, 3/5 (Luis Saez/Brad Cox)
  5. Rombauer, 15/1 (Florent Geroux/Mike McCarthy)
  6. Leblon, 50/1 (Albin Jimenez/Paulin Lobo)
  7. Hush of a Storm, 15/1 (Santiago Gonzalez/Bill Morey
  8. Sittin On Go, 30/1 (Corey Lanerie/Dale Romans)
  9. Keepmeinmind, 8/1 (David Cohen/Robertino Diodoro)

Hush of a Storm, who scratched out of last week’s Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park for a crack at this field, is a late stalker/closer. He’s also in far over his head here.

That leaves second-favorite Highly Motivated (7/2) as a legitimate challenger. The Into Mischief colt came out of a four-month layoff to finish third behind Weyburn and Crowded Trade in the Gotham last month. This stalker has the speed to contend here, but may get outkicked by Essential Quality trying to duplicate his rival’s far-turn slingshot move.

Joel Rosario makes Untreated dangerous

We will mention Untreated (10/1) in passing for one reason: Joel Rosario. Arguably the hottest rider in the country right now, Rosario bagged the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Concert Tour and the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds aboard Hot Rod Charlie. Both times, Rosario went all-in early, sending his charges forward. Both times, that strategy paid off.

In a race devoid of early speed, Rosario’s aggressiveness sending this son of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist out early could make matters interesting – and your exotics profitable.

The pick: Essential Quality. Again, this is one of those races where you don’t outthink the room and you don’t try to beat a clearly superior horse running where he’s enjoyed success – he’s 2-for-2 at Keeneland — before.