By Duane Fonseca
Brad Cox claimed a first Triple Crown success after Essential Quality romped to victory in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes, even as he awaited the verdict on a tainted renewal of the Kentucky Derby where his horse Mandaloun finished second to controversial winner Medina Spirit.
Cox could be a Derby winner if the Bob Baffert trainee is disqualified for failing to return negative tests. But the Louisville born Cox thoroughly enjoyed Essential Quality’s length and a quarter victory over Hot Rod Charlie at Belmont Park.
Essential Quality was favourite and passed Doug O’Neill’s early leader Hot Rod Charlie with Flavien Prat around the final turn, holding on comfortably thereafter to win the $1 million race over 2000m miles. Michael McCarthy’s Preakness Stakes champion Rombauer was a further eleven and a quarter lengths back in third under John Velazquez.
Cox said: “That was a long way around there, a mile a half, but it was exciting.
“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.”
Essential Quality was fourth as a beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby because of a rough trip that saw him get bumped at the start, which then led to him having to circle the rest of his rivals. He just fell short there but not without showing plenty of heart. And at Belmont too he was four-wide making the final turn cutting in deftly to turn the contest into a match race with Hot Rod Charlie, who challenged him until the final 100m.
“In the Kentucky Derby we were so confident that we’re gonna win that race,” said his jockey Luis Saez, who won a Triple Crown race for the first time.
“He was ready for the race. But we have a little unlucky start. ... Today, the main thing was try to break clean and the rest I know he's gonna do it.”
Cox predicted last summer that Essential Quality would be his horse for the Belmont, and that proved true in beating a tough field of seven others. Victory brought about a sort of redemption for Saez, who thought he had his first Triple Crown win in the 2019 Derby with Maximum Security, who was then disqualified for impeding other horses.
“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,” Cox said. “Luis did a fantastic job of getting him in position turning for home and he was able to really show his stamina late.”
Saez added: “This was the race I wanted to win.”
Cox lauded Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s support saying: “Sheikh Mohammed, he’s been supporting us the last two years and this is a tremendous organisation, world-class organisation, and we wouldn’t be here obviously without this horse and his support, so I just wanted to really thank him.”
The race was run without a horse trained by Baffert, who was banned by the New York Racing Association after Medina Spirit failed a post-Derby drug test for the presence of a steroid.