By Richard Rosenblatt
Essential Quality made amends for the only loss of his career in the Kentucky Derby (G1) by outdueling Hot Rod Charlie and winning the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) on Saturday in the final leg of a most bizarre Triple Crown.
Under sunny skies, temperatures in the 90s, and about 11,000 fans at Belmont Park, Essential Quality regained control of the 3-year-old division with a match-race type finish in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.
With the 1 1/4-length victory, Essential Quality improved to 6-for-7 for owner Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin LLC and trainer Brad Cox, who is 1-for-1 in the “Test of the Champion.”
It also gave jockey Luis Saez his first Triple Crown race victory – the rider was aboard 2019 Kentucky Derby first-place finisher Maximum Security, who was disqualified for interference and placed 17th.
Which brings us back to this Triple Crown season, one in which Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won his record-setting seventh Derby with Medina Spirit on May 1, but the horse is facing a DQ for a post-race positive test for a prohibitive medication.
If that happens, the Cox-trained Mandaloun, second in the Derby, would be the official Derby winner, giving the conditioner victories in two of the three Triple Crown races. Cox did not enter a horse in the Preakness, won by Rombauer, who finished third in the Belmont, 11 ¼ lengths behind Hot Rod Charlie. Known Agenda was fourth, followed by Bourbonic, Rock Your World, Overtook, and France Go de Ina.
Hot Rod Charlie, third in the Derby on May 1, posted a record-setting early pace (22.78 seconds for the first quarter mile) and held the lead until Essential Quality moved into the lead around the long, sweeping final turn with about a quarter mile to go,
The race to the finish was on, and it was 6-5 favorite Essential Quality ($4.60 on a $2 win bet), a gray son of top sire Tapit, who won in 2:27.11 – one of the faster times in Belmont history.
“Luis did a good job of getting him into position,’’ said Cox. “Turning for home, we were pretty much on even terms with the leader. Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race to hang around that late after doing most of the dirty work. Our horse really showed his talent and stamina.”
The win is super special, who dedicated the win to his brother Juan, a 17-year-old apprentice rider who died in a racing accident in 2014 in Indiana.
“I’m so proud to be here and come out with a victory. The Derby (in 2019) was a little (tough), but you know stuff happens so I’m OK.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of speed, so we tried to get a clean break and be right there, the rider added. “I knew he was going to run his race at the top of the stretch. On the backside, he picked up the bridle and was moving pretty well, so I’m not going to try to take him back and go inside when he was running pretty well.”
Cox, of course, was thrilled with the victory for his colt who won his first five races, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) over Hot Rod Charlie, and was voted 2-year-old champion
“A long race, 1 ½ miles, but it was exciting,’’ said Cox. “I thought it (the fast pace) benefited our horse. Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race, but Luis did a fantastic job of getting him (Essential Quality) in position turning for home and was able to take the lead … I knew it was going be a battle down the lane.”
Jimmy Bell, the racing manager for Godolphin, accepted the Belmont Stakes trophy.
“He’s never run a bad race in his life, and today he met the ‘Test of the Champion.’ It’s a tribute to him.”
Silver State ($13.40) rallied along the inside for a one-length victory over fast-closing By My Standards in one of racing’s most prestigious events outside the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Ricard Santana, Jr., have now won three of the past four Met Miles – they won with Bee Jersey in 2018 and Mitole in 2019). Silver State earned an expenses-paid trip to the Breeders’ Cup with the win – the 4-year-old’s sixth victory in a row. Knicks Go, the 4-5 favorite, set the pace but was overtaken in the stretch and finished fourth in the six-horse field.
The 5-2 favorite Domestic Spending ($5) unleashed a powerful closing kick to win by 2 ¾ lengths over stablemate Tribuhavan with second betting choice Colonel Liam eighth in the 10-horse field. Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Flavien Prat, the 4-year-old gelding has now won four in a row, including three straight Grade 1’s – the 2020 Hollywood Derby, the Turf Classic at Churchill Downs and now the Manhattan.
Drain the Clock ($17) edged favorite Jackie’s Warrior by a neck under Jose Ortiz for the colt’s sixth victory in eight career starts for trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. Caddo River was last in the six-horse field.
Lone Rock ($8.90) cruised to an 11 ¼-length victory over favorite Tizamagician in a field of nine. Ridden by Ramon Vazquez for trainer Robertino Diordoro, the 6-year-old gelding won for the 11 time in 33 career starts and improved to 4-for-5 in 2021.
9-10 favorite Search Results ($3.80) rallied in the stretch for a half-length victory over fast-closing Obligatory in a field of five. Trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Javier Castellano, Search Results has won four of five, her lone loss by a neck to Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks (G1).
Casa Creed ($23.80) won by a length over Chewing Gum and earned an expenses-paid berth into the Breeders’ Cup in this “Win and You’re In’’ race. The 5-year-old is trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott and was ridden by Junior Alvarado.
Favorite Letruska ($4.40) held off Bonny South by 2 3/4 lengths for the win to earn an expenses-paid trip to the Breeders’ Cup in a “Win and You’re In” race. Letruska, and undefeated champion in Mexico, is trained by Fausto Gutierrez and was ridden by Jose Ortiz. The 5-year-old mare has a resume that includes 3 Grade 1 wins and a career record 14-1-1 in 19 starts.
Althiqa ($16.80) rallied along the rail under Hall of Famer Mike Smith for a three-quarter length win over stablemate Summer Romance in a field of 10. Pocket Square, the 5-2 favorite was fifth. The 4-year-old filly is trained by Charles Appleby for Godolphin LLC. Earlier in the day, Appleby-trained Adayar win the Epsom Derby (G1) in England.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.