SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Essential Quality just keeps on winning, displaying a grit that his handlers simply marvel at.
The Belmont Stakes winner added the $1.25 million Travers Stakes to his resume Saturday, holding off Midnight Bourbon in a stirring stretch duel at Saratoga Race Course for his eighth victory in nine career starts for trainer Brad Cox and Godolphin Stable.
"He ran a tremendous race. He was very good today," Cox said. "He certainly seemed like he had his game face on. He knows how to battle, he really does. He likes to have his head in front. He's a tremendous horse."
The 152nd running of the so-called Mid-Summer Derby had a field of seven 3-year-olds, and only Midnight Bourbon, the runner-up in the Preakness, offered a challenge for the reigning 2-year-old champion. The two led the field from the gate, with Midnight Bourbon setting the pace. He was ahead by as much as 3 1/2 lengths down the back stretch before Essential Quality began to close.
Jockey Luis Saez pulled Essential Quality even at the top of the stretch and the two battled side by side to the wire, with Essential Quality winning by a neck over Midnight Bourbon and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr.
"He's very smart," said Saez, the leading jockey at Saratoga. "He does his job. He knows how to do it. He always does it."
The sleek gray son of Tapit covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2 minutes, 1.96 seconds on a track that was labeled as fast despite an intermittent drizzle. He paid $2.90 to win, $2.30 to place, and $2.10 to show. Midnight Bourbon returned $4 and $3.30. Miles D, with jockey Flavien Prat aboard, was third and paid $4.90.
Essential Quality has never had a bad race. His wide trip in the Kentucky Derby in May - he finished fourth - is the only blemish on that sterling record. Just like Saturday, Essential Quality displayed grit in winning the Jim Dandy four weeks ago, storming from behind at the top of the stretch in the five-horse field and holding off Keepmeinmind by a neck in the traditional prep race at Saratoga for the Travers.
"To have a horse in contention for the Derby, it didn't go out the way we hoped. That's horse racing. You move on," said Jimmy Bell, racing manager at Godolphin Stable. "There was really no redemption. Every race he's always closing. Even though it might be close, it just seems he sort of thrives on that down the lane, more so than we do. He has that innate ability to always finish. He's always coming. He's just a joy."
Cox won one of the most prestigious races for older horses at the Saratoga meeting when Knicks Go won the Grade 1 Whitney earlier this month. He became just the third trainer - and the first since John M. Gaver Sr. in 1942 - to win the Travers and Whitney in the same year with different horses. Gaver won the 1942 Travers with Shut Out and the Whitney with Swing and Sway. James G. Rowe, Jr. was the first, winning the Travers with Twenty Grand and the Whitney with St. Brideaux in 1931.
Essential Quality is the first horse to complete the Jim Dandy-Travers sweep in nearly a decade, since Alpha dead-heated with Golden Ticket in 2012. He's also the 29th horse to pull off the Belmont-Travers double, the 10th Juvenile champion to win the Travers, and first since Street Sense in 2007.
Nine of the past 13 Travers winners, including the last six in a row, entered the Travers coming off a victory.
The Travers was sixth and final Grade I stakes race Saturday. The others: in the 43rd running of the $500,000 Ballerina for fillies and mares 3 years old and up, heavily favored Gamine, trained by Bob Baffert, won for the ninth time in 10 starts, leading wire-to-wire and easily holding off Lake Avenue by 1 3/4 lengths in a light, steady drizzle; Yaupon edged Firenze Fire by a head to win the 42nd running of the $600,000 Forego for 4-year-olds and up; Jackie's Warrior edged Life Is Good by a neck to capture the 37th running $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial for 3-year-olds; Letruska held off Bonny South, Royal Flag and Dunbar Road in a stretch duel to capture the 74th running of the $600,000 Personal Ensign for fillies and mares 4 years old and up; and Gufo outran Japan by a head to win the 47th running of the $750,000 Sword Dancer, a 1.5-mile race on the turf for 4-year-olds and up.