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Essential Quality brings strongest resume

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Horse racing could be in line for another Triple Crown bid and this time the likely candidate is an undefeated horse from a barn other than Bob Baffert’s.

Baffert, of course, is the sport’s dominant trainer who guided American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 to sweeps of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Essential Quality brings the most impressive resume into the 1™-mile Derby on Saturday. No surprise, then, that he’s the early 2-1 favorite in a full field of 20 horses.

Even Baffert agrees.

“To me, it’s Essential Quality’s race,” said the six-time Derby winner, who will attempt to win a record-breaking seventh with a rare long shot, 15-1 Medina Spirit.

That’s the case, in part, because Baffert’s top two candidates — Life Is Good and Concert Tour — were derailed by injury and a dull effort in a final prep, respectively.

Essential Quality certainly has all the credentials most observers would want in a Triple Crown contender.

The gray colt comes into the Derby undefeated in five career races over four different tracks. He was last year’s 2-year-old champion and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He showed toughness in his final prep in the Blue Grass Stakes, winning by a neck over Derby foe Highly Motivated after a stretch duel.

“He’s a solid, solid horse, hasn’t missed a beat,” trainer Brad Cox said. “He’s a very classy horse. He knows when to turn it on and off.”

Jockey Luis Saez agreed, saying, “I know at the top of the stretch he’s always going to give me that kick.”

Essential Quality breaks from post 14, which has produced just two Derby winners, the last being Carry Back in 1961.

The colt has proven adaptable in his races. He can sit off a fast pace and make a charge. If the pace is moderate, he can run closer and finish strongly.

“With his tactical speed, he hopefully would get a good trip and sit pretty close, and if he fires his best shot, I think that’s good enough,” said Larry Collmus, who announces the Derby for NBC.

Saez adds, “He always wants to win. He knows where the wire is.”

Cox is making his Derby debut at 41, trying to become the first Louisville-born trainer to win the race. He grew up blocks away from the Churchill Downs stable gate.

Essential Quality knows the track well, too. He earned his first victory over the same dirt surface on last year’s Derby Day undercard when no spectators were on hand. On Saturday, there will be about 45,000 fans.

“I do feel like we have a little bit of a homecourt advantage,” Cox said. “With a 20-horse field, you have to overcome some things and have what you call racing luck. If he gets the racing luck and a clean trip, we should be in a great position.”

Essential Quality is regally owned and bred — by Dubai Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum’s Godolphin stable — and his father is Tapit, who had a modest racing career only to become America’s most dominant sire over the last 16 years.

“He is quite versatile and obviously athletic, and with a very good mind,” said Jimmy Bell, who runs Godolphin’s U.S. operations. “When you put all those together, it can occasionally give you these kind of results.”

A victory by Essential Quality on Saturday at Churchill Downs would bring extra scrutiny of human rights issues involving the sheikh, who won’t be among the limited fans in attendance.

Thirty horses have gone into the Derby undefeated and nine have emerged with their record unscathed, the last being Justify.

The other undefeated horses in Saturday’s race are 5-1 Rock Your World and 50-1 Helium, both 3-0.

Sheikh’s missing daughter casts shadow

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has spent millions trying to win the Kentucky Derby, and in the process plowing money into horse racing worldwide. Now with the overwhelming favorite, Dubai’s ruler faces increased scrutiny for allegations that he has violated human rights and orchestrated the disappearance of his own daughter.

The controversy, well-known in the Middle East for a more than a year, has gotten renewed attention as Essential Quality prepares for Saturday’s race. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission received a complaint this week from a group of human rights attorneys and students at the University of Louisville seeking to have Sheikh Mohammed banned from the Derby.

The complaint asks the racing commission to bar Sheikh Mohammed from entering any horses in any races, including the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks on Friday “until such time as his daughter, Princess Latifa, is free from captivity, or (b) hold an immediate public hearing to assess the serious allegations of his human rights abuses.”

Kristin Voskul, spokeswoman for the KHRC, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. However, the complaint is not expected to keep the sheikh’s horse out of the Derby.

One of his daughters, Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, said last spring that she is being held against her will, according to video diaries she said were recorded inside a Dubai villa and broadcast by the BBC. Sheikha Latifa was detained by commandos in 2018 after she tried to flee Dubai in a yacht.

The princess’ 38-year-old sister, Shamsa, was taken from Cambridge, England, on Aug. 19, 2000, and hasn’t been seen since. A judge in England ruled last year that Sheikh Mohammed orchestrated both abductions. The sheikh had told the the court he was relieved at having found his “vulnerable” daughter Shamsa after she went missing.

— The Associated Press

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