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Essential Quality with jockey Luis Saez walks down Victory Lane after winning the Belmont Stakes with trainer Brad Cox on the far right.
The $1.5 million NYRA Bets Belmont Stakes (G1), contested at 1 1/2 miles, one lap of the Belmont Park main track for 3-year-olds, is the third jewel of the Triple Crown, with the COVID-restricted 11,238 fans in attendance enjoying ideal racing weather, under sunny skies and a post time temperature of 85 degrees. With no Triple Crown on the line, a field of 8 went to post on Long Island for the 153rd "Test of the Champion".
Blue Grass Stakes (G1) winner Essential Quality was sent off as the 6-5 favorite off his 4th place finish in the Kentucky Derby (G1). In to challenge him included 9-2 second choice Hot Rod Charlie, winner of the Louisiana Derby (G2) then third in the Kentucky Derby, and 5-1 third choice Rock Your World off his disappointing 17th place finish in the Derby after winning the Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Down the stretch with Essential Quality out front.
Jockey Flavien Prat sent Hot Rod Charlie to the lead first time by and he set fractions of 22.78, 46.49, 1:12.07, and 1:37.40 over the fast main track while pressed by Rock Your World and stalked by 27-1 France Go de Ina and 11-2 fourth choice Rombauer. Turning for home, Essential Quality, 5th early under Luis Saez, came out 3 wide and moved up to challenge, poking his head in front of Hot Rod Charlie through 10f in 2:02.38, setting up a duel to the line. The pair left the rest of the field in their wake, with Essential Quality pulling away in the final 1/16 to win by 1 1/4 lengths in 2:27.11. It was a long 11 1/4 lengths back to Rombauer third.
Pgm Horse Jockey Win Place Show 2 Essential Quality Saez 4.60 3.00 2.60 4 Hot Rod Charlie Prat 4.10 2.90 3 Rombauer Velazquez 3.50 Winning Time: 2:27.11 $1 Exacta 2-4 7.50 $1 Trifecta 2-4-3 21.70 $1 Superfecta 2-4-3-6 60.70
Left: Essential Quality in the winner's circle. Winning trainer Brad Cox said, "I thought [the pace] benefited our horse. 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 and he really showed his stamina late. It looked like (Hot Rod Charlie) still had run left, so I knew it was going to be a battle down the lane. He broke well, but it took four or five strides to get position going into the first turn. 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. 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."
Right: Jimmy Bell, president of owner Godolphin USA, trainer Brad Cox, and jockey Luis Saez celebrate with the trophy. Bell said, "We were so fortunate to have another opportunity. 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. In all fairness, he probably ran as good a race (in the Kentucky Derby) as he has run. We all sometimes wish to work out a better trip, but it wasn't meant to be and that's horse racing. We were just looking for an opportunity to showcase his talent and his versatility, and I am very happy he got the job done for us today."
Left: Essential Quality heads to the track before the race. Winning jockey Luis Saez said, "This is my second home. This is the race I wanted to win. We made history. I was giving thanks to the Lord and my [late] brother Juan and I dedicate this race to him. My wife and my daughters are out there waiting for me. I'm just so grateful to be here. In the Kentucky Derby, we were confident and thought he was going to win. 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."
Right: Essential Quality the post parade. Saez added, "It was a pretty nice trip. 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. I had a lot of horse and the good thing about Essential [Quality] is that he always fights. He doesn't care who it is, he's going to want to beat them, so I knew he was going to show up at the top of the stretch. It was so special (to win his first Triple Crown race). 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."
Left: Luis Saez celebrates aboard Essential Quality. Trainer Brad Cox added, "With the Tapit on top we really thought he would get the mile and a half when given the opportunity. 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."
Right: The paddock before the Belmont Stakes.
Left: Second place finisher Hot Rod Charlie leads around the first turn. Trainer Doug O'Neill said, "It was such a great stretch duel and he ran against the 2-year champ. This may sound cocky but I wasn't that surprised when they went as fast as they did early and he kept fighting on the inside. Flavien rode with a lot of confidence and I wouldn't second-guess him and I wouldn't do anything different. We just got beat by a better horse today. The heart this horse has in him is unbelievable. He's got so much try in him it's crazy. 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."
Right: Third place finisher Rombauer breaks from the starting gate. Jockey John Velazquez said, "He broke good. We saved all the ground. 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. Two fresh horses, that's why the Triple Crown is so difficult to win. When you have fresh horses going into the races it's really hard."
The horses break from the gate for the 153rd Belmont Stakes. Joel Rosario aboard Rock Your World (post 7, finished sixth) said, "I was in a good spot. I thought I was going to go to the lead, but the other horse decided to send, so I was laying in second. He was there for a little while and then he just got a little tired."
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