Essential Quality rallies to win Belmont Stakes

AP photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Essential Quality jockey Luis Saez celebrates after riding the Brad Cox-trained horse to victory in the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday in Elmont, N.Y.

NEW YORK - Brad Cox insisted he wasn't sitting around waiting or worrying about whether a disqualification of Bob Baffert's Kentucky Derby winner would give him his first victory in a Triple Crown race.

Essential Quality captured the Belmont Stakes on Saturday to make sure Cox wouldn't need to wait a second longer to have that distinction.

The striking gray colt who was bet down 6-5 as the favorite passed early leader Hot Rod Charlie around the final turn and charged ahead to the wire to win the 1 1/2-mile race with a $1 million purse in front of 11,238 mostly maskless fans at Belmont Park.

Cox, the 41-year-old trainer from Louisville, could be a Kentucky Derby champion with Mandaloun if Baffert-trained Medina Spirit is disqualified for failing his drug test after that May 1 race at Churchill Downs. Two samples have confirmed the presence of the steroid betamethasone, though Kentucky racing officials have not yet announced the horse's disqualification - a move that would elevate Mandaloun to the top spot.

Either way, Cox was able to enjoy this one with Essential Quality beating Hot Rod Charlie by 1 1/4 lengths. Essential Quality did so in 2 minutes, 27.11 seconds, taking advantage of an unexpected fast pace set by Hot Rod Charlie.

"I thought it 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 would come back."

Essential Quality, after opening as the 2-1 favorite, paid $4.60 to win, $3 to place and $2.60 to show. Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer was third and Known Agenda fourth.

"That was a long way around there, a mile and a half, but it was exciting," Cox said. "It looked like the horse on the inside, he still had run left. I knew it was going to be a battle down the lane."

At the Kentucky Derby, Essential Quality finished fourth as a beaten favorite after a rough trip around the track. In the Belmont, he showed why he has long been considered one of the top 3-year-old thoroughbreds in the country.

"He has never run a bad race in his life, and I think he showed today he met the test of a champion," said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin, the stable that owns Essential Quality. "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."

Backdooring his way to becoming the first Louisville-born trainer to win the Kentucky Derby wouldn't allow Cox the same joy of victory as the Belmont, which the up-and-coming star will likely remember as his first true triumph in a Triple Crown race.

And Cox saw this coming. He predicted last summer that Essential Quality would be his horse for the Belmont, and that proved true while beating a tough field of seven other horses.

Something closer to normal routine returned to the Belmont after a topsy-turvy 2020 that included the race leading off the Triple Crown Series at a nontraditional 1 1/8-mile distance in front of fan-free stands. The race was back in its traditional spot as the third leg of the series - five weeks after the Derby and three after the Preakness - and back to its "test of the champion" distance with fans roaring for horses at the top of the stretch.

It was something of a redemption ride for jockey Luis Saez, who thought he had his first Triple Crown race win after finishing first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby with Maximum Security. However, Maximum Security was disqualified for impeding other horses.

There was no such turn of events this time.

"This is my second home," said Saez, who dedicated the race to the memory of his younger brother Juan, who was killed in a riding accident in 2014. "This was the race I wanted to win."

Said Cox: "Luis did a fantastic job of getting him in position turning for home, and he was able to really show his stamina late."

However, the victory also comes with a shadow hanging over United Arab Emirates ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who runs Godolphin. Sheik Mohammed faces the scrutiny of human rights abuses after a judge in England ruled he orchestrated the abductions of two of his adult daughters.

Talking only about his ownership and not the situation in Dubai, Cox made it a point to mention Sheik Mohammed moments after the Belmont.

"He's been supporting us the last two years, and this is a tremendous organization, world-class organization, and we wouldn't be here obviously without this horse and his support, so I just wanted to really thank him," Cox said.

The race was run without a horse trained by Baffert, who was banned by the New York Racing Association after Medina Spirit tested positive in Kentucky and finished third in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore two weeks later. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for two years after a second sample for Medina Spirit came back positive for betamethasone, which is prohibited at any level on race day in Kentucky, Maryland and New York.

Cox was confused why he kept getting asked about the pending Derby disqualification.

"I don't wait at all," Cox said this week. "I can't control the outcome of that, so it's something I give very, very little thought to."