Essential Quality rebounded from his lone defeat, a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, to outduel pacesetting Hot Rod Charlie by 1 ¼ lengths in the 153rd Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Belmont Park.
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 that included an opening quarter of a mile in a blazing 22.78 seconds, a half in 46.49 seconds and three-quarters in 1:12.07. Meanwhile, 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. “I thought the pace benefited 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’d come back. Luis did a fantastic job putting him in position turning for home.”
Cox grew up in the shadow of Churchill Downs. He gradually built his operation, leading to a breakout year last season that culminated in four Breeders’ Cup victories and his first Eclipse Award as the leading trainer in North America. And now this for someone whose success started with his willingness to think big.
“I’ve always dreamed of winning Derbies and Belmonts and classic races,” he said.
Cox, 41, noted how difficult his path to the top has been. “It’s not six days a week. It’s seven-day weeks,” he said. “And it’s days like this that make it so rewarding.”
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.
Interestingly, Essential Quality denied Hot Rod Charlie by three-quarters of a length in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance last November at Keeneland, so apparently not much has changed.
According to Saez, he always believed in Essential Quality. “In the Kentucky Derby, we were confident and thought he was going to win,” the rider said. “But we had a little unlucky start breaking from there. Today, the big thing was to try to break cleanly. For the rest, I knew he was going to do it.”
Despite the heart-wrenching defeat, trainer Doug O’Neill was proud of Hot Rod Charlie.
“The heart this horse has in him is unbelievable. He’s got so much try in him it’s crazy,” O’Neill said. “So does the winner, of course. Those are two top horses and, hopefully, they both stay injury-free and we get a good rivalry for a long time. That would be really cool.”
Prat said of the quick fractions: “I was traveling well the whole way around there. I wish we could have gone a little slower, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. He was very game.”
Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer came in a distant third with Known Agenda fourth. Neither ever threatened the top two. Bourbonic, Rock Your World, Overtook and Japan-based France Go de Ina completed the order of finish.
A Godolphin homebred, Essential Quality improved his career record to six wins from seven starts with $3,215,144 in earnings and emerged as the clear leader of the 3-year-old class. He opened this season with a dominant 4 ¼-length decision in the Feb. 27 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park and followed that with a neck score in the April 3 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
He will soon return to his home base at Churchill Downs. If all goes well, he will be pointed to the Travers Stakes, the famed “Mid-Summer Derby,” at Saratoga Race Course.
“The most important thing is letting him tell us,” said Cox, whose willingness to listen to his horses allowed him to attain heights he once dreamed of.