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Brad Cox-trained Essential Quality rallies to win Belmont Stakes

Essential Quality (2), with jockey Luis Saez up, crosses the finish line to win the 153rd Belmont Stakes on June 5, 2021.
Essential Quality, with jockey Luis Saez aboard, crosses the finish line to win the 153rd Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

In the summer of last year at Keeneland, Brad Cox had just seen Essential Quality complete a strong workout when the trainer made a proclamation. “That’s my Belmont Stakes horse,” Cox said.

And he was right.

You can forget the fact that Cox has made that statement about other horses and that Essential Quality was his first Belmont starter. The way the 3-year-old colt looked Saturday, there was no doubt he was a Belmont Stakes horse.

He ran patiently mid-pack through the opening half of the 1½-mile race under a strong hold from jockey Luis Saez. Entering the far turn he started picking off horses, and at the top of the stretch he had drawn even with leader Hot Rod Charlie.

Hot Rod Charlie, based at Santa Anita and trained by Doug O’Neill, ran a winning race. He just didn’t win, instead finishing second by 1¼ lengths in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Essential Quality paid $4.60, $3.00 and $2.60. Rombauer, trained by Michael McCarthy, was third, followed by Known Agenda, Bourbonic, Rock Your World, Overtook and France Go De Ina.

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“I thought the [fast pace] benefitted our horse,” Cox said. “Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race, and I thought, with the hot pace, we were in a good spot where they would come back. [Saez] did a fantastic job putting him in position turning for home, and he really showed his stamina late.”

It was also Saez’s first Triple Crown victory.

“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.”

Trainer Brad Cox, left, and jockey Luis Saez celebrate with the August Belmont Trophy after Essential Quality's win.
Trainer Brad Cox, left, and jockey Luis Saez celebrate with the August Belmont Trophy after Essential Quality’s victory at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

Saez was aboard Maximum Security when he finished first but was disqualified for interference in that Derby.

O’Neill was obviously pleased with Hot Rod Charlie’s performance.

“I thought he was going to come back, honest,” O’Neill said. “And in my mind, he did come back. He gave everything he had today. There was definitely a part of me where I was saying they are going to be bobbing heads and we are going to get the bob. Essential Quality had more today. Thank [goodness] they don’t run mile-and-a-half races every day.”

Flavien Prat was the winning rider on Rombauer in the Preakness but elected to go back to Hot Rod Charlie, whom he rode in the Derby. He too was happy with the colt’s effort.

“We had a good race,” Prat said. “He was traveling well on the lead, and he was really game [Saturday]. … I’m really proud of my horse.”

Essential Quality’s path to this win started last September at Churchill Downs and then at Keeneland. He won his first two races and then took the biggest race for 2-year-olds, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That win in November earned him the Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old colt. He then took a couple of months off before winning the Southwest at Oaklawn Park and the Blue Grass at Keeneland.

He went into the Kentucky Derby as the favorite, but right out of the gate he collided with Rock Your World and it appeared to doom his chances to win the race. He did make up a lot of ground and finished fourth, behind Hot Rod Charlie. It was his first, and still only, loss.

This might turn out to be Cox’s second Triple Crown victory, but for now, it’s just his first. He trained Mandaloun, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby behind Medina Spirit. The Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit tested positive for a legal medication, just one that’s not legal on race day. Both samples came back positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory. Baffert says the horse was being treated with an ointment for a rash and that’s how it got in his system.

Essential Quality wins the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is expected to disqualify Medina Spirit, which will be followed by a hearing and eventually litigation.

Only one other time was a Kentucky Derby winner disqualified for medication, and that was in 1968 when Dancer’s Image was taken down and Forward Pass made the winner. It took four years to settle the case.

And if horse racing has not had enough controversy this year, Essential Quality is owned by Godolphin, which is controlled by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He is under scrutiny for alleged human right violations, including the disappearance of his daughter. A complaint was filed to try to keep Essential Quality out of the Kentucky Derby. It failed.

One of his daughters said she is being held against her will in Dubai, and another daughter hasn’t been seen since 2000 after being taken while in England. Shiek Mohammed said his second daughter has been found. Last year, a judge in England ruled Sheikh Mohammed was behind both abductions.

But the controversies that seem to follow horse racing seemed to take a back seat on this hot day on Long Island with 11,238 fans in attendance. For about 2½ minutes, all that seemed to matter was the race and a great stretch dual by two talented colts.

And they might both come back to New York and go against each other at Saratoga in the Travers.


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