Essential Quality Wins Belmont Stakes at Belmont ParkEssential Quality (Godolphin Stables) accomplished everything that could be achieved in 2020, winning a pair of Grade 1s, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, en route to an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old.
The Tapit colt made an even bolder statement on Saturday, taking charge out of the final turn and holding off the determined pacesetter Hot Rod Charlie for a 1 1/4-length win in the 153rd running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
The third and final leg of the Triple Crown series closed a string of nine consecutive stakes, including eight Grade 1s, on a loaded 13-race card. After being contested without spectators in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shortened to 1 1/8 miles as the first leg of the Triple Crown, the "Test of the Champion" again was held in front of fans and at its famed 1 1/2-mile distance, restoring its status as the longest of the American Classics.
Essential Quality, the 6-5 favorite whose only non-win came when a competitive fourth in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby in May at Churchill Downs, provided conditioner Brad Cox, the reigning Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Trainer, his first career victory in a Triple Crown race. Essential Quality won for the sixth time in seven career starts with five graded stakes scores.
"With the Tapit on top we really thought he would get the mile and a half when given the opportunity," Cox said. "We always thought he had the ability. After the Derby, you just have to see what it takes out of them. It's a demanding race as well as the Belmont. We were watching him for a week or so. We put our heads together and felt like if we we're going to keep him in training we might as well run him. I really didn't think I could keep his feet on the ground the next couple of months without keeping him on some type of breeze schedule. He's a very smart horse. He has a lot of energy, but he lets you know when he's ready to run."
After a troubled start at the Kentucky Derby, Essential Quality was looking for an improved trip in the Belmont Stakes, which he got under regular rider Luis Saez breaking from post 2. Away cleanly, Essential Quality tracked in fifth position as jockey Flavien Prat sent Hot Rod Charlie to the front from post 4, setting fast early fractions for the eight-horse field with the quarter-mile in 22.78 seconds and the half in 46.49 on the fast main track.
Essential Quality, still in a comfortable spot, took advantage of the hot pace and Saez made a strong move coming out of the final turn. At the top of the stretch, it became a two-horse race, with Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie linking up before the Kentucky homebred outkicked his rival, completing the course in 2:27.11.
"He broke well, but it took four or five strides to get position going into the first turn," Cox said. "I was a touch shocked. I thought we'd be a little closer on our own. When we saw the opening quarter, I felt good. And then the 46 he was laying mid pack and on the outside.
"At that point, even going the distance, he should be closing at this pace," Cox added. "Luis did a good job of getting him into position. 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."
Saez joined Cox in also winning his first Classic, having come closest previously with Bravazo's second-place finish in the 2018 Preakness. All of Essential Quality's stakes wins have come with Saez in the irons. Saez crossed the wire first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby aboard Maximum Security but was disqualified and placed 17th.
"It was so special," Saez said. "I'm so proud to be here and come out with a victory. The [2019 Kentucky] Derby was a little [tough], but you know stuff happens so I'm OK.
"It was a pretty nice trip," Saez continued. "That's what I was expecting, we knew there was going to be a lot of speed, so we tried to get a clean break and be right there. 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."
Essential Quality won his first five starts, including the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity in October at Keeneland and two wins on the Kentucky Derby qualifying trail with scores in the Grade 3 Southwest going 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park in February and the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 Blue Grass in April at Keeneland.
The 6-5 Belmont Stakes favorite returned $4.60 on a $2 win bet. By acing the 12-furlong test, Essential Quality earned $800,000 and improved his career bankroll to more than $3.2 million.
Essential Quality was Godolphin's first Belmont Stakes starter since Frosted ran second to American Pharoah during his famed Triple Crown-clinching win in 2015.
"We were so fortunate to have another opportunity [after the Derby]," said Jimmy Bell, President of Godolphin USA. "He has never run a bad race in his life, and I think he showed today he met the test of a champion. To do what he did as a 2-year-old and come through these races as a 3-year-old with the mile-and-a-half Classic, it's a great tribute to him."
Hot Rod Charlie, owned by Roadrunner Racing, Boat Racing, William Strauss and Gainesway Stable, earned a placing in a second Triple Crown race after running third in the Kentucky Derby last out for trainer Doug O'Neill.
Hot Rod Charlie followed in his sire's footsteps, as 2013 Preakness-winner Oxbow also ran second in that year's Belmont. Bred by Edward Cox, Jr., Hot Rod Charlie finished 11 1/4-lengths clear of current Preakness-winner Rombauer.
It marked the second time Hot Rod Charlie ran second to Essential Quality, duplicating the exacta from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at Keeneland.
"Our horse told us today that he's a gamer," O'Neill said. "He got pushed. He did all the dirty work. Essential Quality ran a huge race and I think Charlie showed he was trying every step of the way from gate-to-wire. He just couldn't hold off a champ."
Prat, who returned to ride Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont Stakes after piloting Rombauer to his Preakness win, helped his horse earn black type for the fifth time in his career.
"We had a good race," Prat said. "He was traveling well on the lead and he was really game today. It was a great effort. We had a lot of pressure, but I don't think it would have mattered today. I'm really proud of my horse."
John and Diane Fradkin's Rombauer, trained by Michael McCarthy and ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez, moved to 3-1-2 in eight career starts with the third-place effort.
"He broke good. We saved all the ground," Velazquez said. "He tried his best, couldn't get there. I had a good trip. I went behind the winners and the winning move was on the outside, a little too soon for me, so I waited a little longer and was a good third."
Known Agenda and stablemate Bourbonic ran fourth and fifth, respectively, for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. Rock Your World was sixth, followed by Pletcher trainee Overtook. France Go de Ina was eased to the wire.
Sunday's live racing at Belmont Park will feature a nine-race card with a 1 p.m. Eastern first post. The $150,000 Jersey Girl for 3-year-old fillies going six furlongs will be contested as Race 7 at 4:08 p.m.
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