Essential Quality, the 2-year-old champion that rattled off five victories to open his career, was a hard-luck loser in the run for the roses on May 1. He was roughed up at the start before he and regular rider Luis Saez lost considerable ground in finishing fourth by a length.
It was a very different story in the $1.5 million, Grade 1 Belmont, where everything went their way. Hot Rod Charlie, third in the Derby, set a torrid early pace in the mile-and-a-half marathon while Saez patiently sat midpack in the field of eight. They collared the determined front-runner and jockey Flavien Prat at the top of the stretch before Essential Quality gradually wore down his valiant rival.
“It was a long way around there, but it was exciting,” said trainer Brad Cox, a Louisville native who registered his first Triple Crown victory.
Saez recorded his first Belmont victory in five tries. He looked to the heavens after his mount flashed across the finish line in 2:27.11.
“I was giving thanks to the Lord and my brother, Juan,” Saez said.
Juan was a 17-year-old apprentice when he died from head trauma suffered in a riding accident at Indiana Grand in 2014.
The outcome also was extremely significant to Tapit, the sire of Essential Quality. He equaled the great stallion Lexington for most Belmont champions with four. Tapit previously sired Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016) and Tapwrit (2017).
“He was able to really show his stamina late,” Cox said of his gray colt.