High Class: Godolphin homebred Essential Quality redeems in Belmont

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Brad Cox finished an interview after winning an undercard stakes on Preakness Day at Pimlico Race Course before the conversation turned from victory at that moment to the Belmont Stakes three weeks down the road.

“He will be if I enter him,” Cox said when asked if he still believed his assessment of Essential Quality as “his Belmont horse,” after watching the Tapit colt train last spring at Keeneland and later in the summer at Churchill Downs.

Cox laughed at his own statement, probably knowing he would run the Godolphin homebred in the Belmont if he came out of his half-mile breeze that morning in Louisville and two more subsequent Saturdays in good order. He always thought Essential Quality was tailor made for the 12 furlongs of the Belmont, a story told several times over in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby and when the gray colt finished a somewhat troubled fourth behind Medina Spirit, stablemate Mandaloun and Hot Rod Charlie.

Essential Quality just needed to prove his trainer’s hypothesis correct and Saturday in the 153rd running of America’s oldest and longest classic did just that. Essential Quality won the Belmont, outslugging a stubborn and determined Hot Rod Charlie down the lane to move into the top spot of the 3-year-old male division. Already recognized as the best of his generation after beating Hot Rod Charlie in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Keeneland, Essential Quality redeemed his troubled fourth in the Kentucky Derby and improved to 6-for-7 in the Belmont.

“That was a bit of a horse race, huh?” said Jimmy Bell, president of the Maktoum family’s Godolphin USA operation, while walking from the owners’ boxes minutes after Essential Quality’s 1 1/4-length win over Hot Rod Charlie with Preakness winner Rombauer third.

The Belmont turned out to be just that, a welcome performance by two game colts who put on a show as racing’s final jewel of the American Triple Crown returned to its traditional distance and place on the calendar after being run at 1 1/8 miles – and starting the series instead of finishing it – last June because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cox, with an NBC camera trained on him, watched the race unfold in front of a bank of television monitors on the first floor of the grandstand alongside his sons and a handful of other friends. He turned down the offer of a Gatorade from an NBC staffer just before the race and offered no response when told that NYRA handicapper Andy Serling “picked you, that’s no good.”

Fans at Belmont – limited to about 10,000 in what many hope are the final days of Covid-19 restrictions and concerns – and horseplayers worldwide agreed and sent Essential Quality to post against his seven opponents as 6-5 favorite in a field of eight. Cox stayed stoic throughout most of the race, watching Essential Quality track the fast pace set by Hot Rod Charlie, Rock Your World and France Go de Ina, inch up down the backstretch, reach contention around the far turn and make the lead turning for home.

When Essential Quality took aim at Hot Rod Charlie in the stretch, Cox hit his leg with his rolled up program and called out “Luis” for jockey Luis Saez a few times, but otherwise stayed emotionless.

“I’m normally pretty composed watching the race,” Cox said afterward. “I yelled Luis’ name a couple of times down the lane. I’m focused on what he’s doing. I’m taking a lot in, that’s why I like to watch on TV. It was exciting. I probably got a little more vocal than I normally do.”

Essential Quality gave Saez and Cox their first classic wins and completed a strong spring for the Maktoum family’s global racing operations. Shadwell Stable, the operation of the late Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, won the Kentucky Oaks with Malathaat and now five weeks later Godolphin, run by his brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, added its first American classic.

Saez nearly won his first Triple Crown race in 2019 aboard Maximum Security before being disqualified for an incident at the top of the stretch in the Kentucky Derby. Cox saw his runners finished second and fourth in this year’s Kentucky Derby and still might wind up as the winning trainer in Mandaloun following Medina Spirit’s failed drug test.

“This is my second home. This is the race I wanted to win. We made history,” Saez said. “It was so special. I’m so proud to be here and come out with a victory. The (2019) Derby was a little (tough), but you know, stuff happens so I’m OK.”

Essential Quality, the fourth foal out of the graded stakes-placed Elusive Quality mare Delightful Quality bred and raced by the Maktoum family’s Darley operation, added the Belmont to wins in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass – all at Keeneland – and the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

“With the Tapit on top we really thought he would get the mile and a half when given the opportunity,” Cox said. “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.”

Essential Quality proved ready to run and Belmont Park proved ready to host another event with some buzz.

The hustle and bustle returned Saturday, a year removed from an eerily quiet classic run in front of a nearly empty grandstand at a shortened distance and two weeks later than its traditional date. The hustle might not have matched even that of 2019, when Sir Winston registered an upset victory in front of 56,217 fans. Nor did the bustle come close to 2015 or 2018, when American Pharoah and Justify completed their respective Triple Crown sweeps.

But the grand old racetrack on the edges of Queens and Long Island still showed that it’s capable of conjuring some early June magic just when the American sporting public needed it most. The stands were largely empty from the upper reaches of the grandstand to the prime spots of the clubhouse boxes, but much of Belmont Day 2021 felt at least like a bit of one of the best days on the New York racing circuit and maybe even more so given the dearth of activity at the state’s racetracks for more than a year.

Picture booths saw a steady stream of activity behind the grandstand and clubhouse, the framed photo stand returned behind the paddock and food trucks, fedoras and fascinators were seen throughout the backyard. Sandals and seersucker suits, cigar vendors and even program and tip sheet sellers were a welcome sight in the significantly reduced backyard thanks to the construction of the new home of the New York Islanders at the far end of the grandstand.

Temperatures swelled above 90 degrees late in the afternoon as post time approached for the Belmont but it did little to hold back the enthusiasm of the crowd ringed around the paddock. The Belmont runners took an extra full turn of the paddock – a welcome sign to those with a spot along the ring – and plenty of patrons felt good about belting out a few verses of “New York, New York” in the post parade.

Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer went to the post a little worked up – after also being slightly agitated in the paddock – but otherwise the preliminaries went smoothly. Flavien Prat, who rode Rombauer in Baltimore but opted for Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont, was aggressive leaving the starting gate and put the Kentucky Derby third-place finisher on the lead heading into the first turn.

Hot Rod Charlie led through a fast opening quarter-mile in :22.78 and half in :46.49, just ahead of Santa Anita Derby winner and expected pacesetter Rock Your World with Japanese invader France Go de Ina in the race early. Essential Quality tracked in fifth through the opening half, just behind Rombauer with Bourbonic, Known Agenda and Overtook chasing.

“He broke well, but it took four or five strides to get position going into the first turn,” Cox said. “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.”

Hot Rod Charlie eventually shrugged off his immediate chasers – after 6 furlongs in 1:12.07 and a mile in 1:37.40 – and rounded the bend in front with Essential Quality bearing down.

Doug O’Neill, Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer, didn’t give up on his colt even after seeing the taxing fractions and Essential Quality drawing alongside in midstretch.

“During the stretch run I thought he was going to come back, honest to God,” O’Neill said. “In my mind he did come back. He gave everything he had. There is definitely a part of me that thought they’d start bobbing heads and it would be whoever gets the head bob.”

Essential Quality eventually inched clear and the photo finish-camera wasn’t needed, but it took nothing away from the runner-up who earned a hearty round of applause from the crowd coming back. Cox saluted Hot Rod Charlie, who finished a half-length behind Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a head in front in the Kentucky Derby and now 1 ¼ lengths behind in the Belmont.

“Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race to hang around that late after doing most of the dirty work,” Cox said.

Rombauer hung on to finish third, 11 1/4 lengths behind the runner-up as the only member of the field along with France Go de Ina to come back in three weeks from the Preakness. Known Agenda, the Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby ninth-place finisher, checked in a non-threatening three-quarters of a length back in fourth with Bourbonic fifth. Essential Quality won in 2:27.11 on the fast track.

Additional reporting by Paul Halloran