Rombauer won the 146th Preakness Stakes. Photo by Cynthia Longo.

A talented group that includes an Eclipse Award winner and an American Classic victor will comprise an eight-horse field for the 153rd running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday at Belmont Park, marking the third and final leg of the Triple Crown.

After a schedule adjustment last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belmont Stakes has returned to its usual spot on the calendar following the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. It also will be contested again at its famed 1 1/2-mile distance going once around Big Sandy and in front of live spectators.

Those fans will get to see a field that includes Godolphin’s Essential Quality, who won last year’s Grade 1 Breeders Futurity and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile en route to locking up champion 2-year-old colt honors and garnering an Eclipse Award for conditioner Brad Cox as champion trainer. 

Essential Quality, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, started his career 5-for-5, notching four graded stakes scores, including the Grade 3 Southwest in February at Oaklawn Park and the Grade 2 Blue Grass in April at Keeneland to start his sophomore campaign. The Tapit colt ran a competitive fourth in the Kentucky Derby in his lone non-winning effort but still tallied a career-high 100 Beyer Speed Figure for finishing one length shy of winner Medina Spirit.

“He ran what I thought was a winning race in the Derby; he didn’t have the trip, but he showed up and he’s been improving in every start,” said Cox, who will be saddling his first Belmont Stakes contender. “I’m confident that he can handle the mile and a half. Just based off his works and his races, he’s very steady and doesn’t seem to get tired. He has a tremendous amount of stamina that I think he was just blessed with based on his pedigree.

“He’s got a nice balance of speed and stamina, which is what it takes to win any Grade 1,” Cox continued. “He’s never shown signs that he couldn’t [get the 12 furlongs], but you never know until you do it.” 

Essential Quality drew post 2 and will again have the services of jockey Luis Saez, who will be looking to win his first American Classic. Saez’s closest finish in a Triple Crown race came in 2018 when Bravazo was the Preakness runner-up.

“Luis has a ton of confidence in the colt and he’s confident Essential Quality can get the distance,” Cox said. “We’re hopefully set up for a big race Saturday.”

John and Diane Fradkin’s homebred Rombauer enters off his impressive 3 1/2-length win in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness on May 15 at Pimlico Race Course and will look to become the first horse to complete the Belmont-Preakness Double since Afleet Alex in 2005 [both American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 were victorious in all three legs to become the 12th and 13th respective Triple Crown winners].

Rombauer, who won the El Camino Real Derby in February on the Golden Gate Tapeta, has already earned a reputation as a versatile threat, posting wins on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces while earning stakes placing at four different racetracks, including second to Get Her Number in the Grade 1 American Pharoah in September and third in the Grade 2 Blue Grass in his final tuneup before the Preakness.

“He’s a well put-together horse. He’s well balanced,” said trainer Michael McCarthy. “He’s not overly big. His mechanics are great and he’s a horse that when you lead him over there, he has his mind on running. I think his best weapon is what’s in between his ears.”

Historic Belmont Park has been a big part of McCarthy’s career, which included invaluable lessons working as an assistant for newly named Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher before going out on his own full time in 2014. The 50-year-old McCarthy won his lone Breeders’ Cup race in 2018 when City of Light captured the Dirt Mile and Rombauer provided his first win in an American Classic with a chance to earn another at a familiar track.

“It would be fantastic. I have a lot of good memories here,” McCarthy said. “To win any Triple Crown race is fantastic, the Belmont is really the “Test of the Champion” and it would certainly be nice to hoist a trophy like that on Saturday.”

Flavien Prat rode Rombauer in his Preakness win but will have the call on Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont Stakes. McCarthy didn’t have to scour the country for a qualified rider, as Hall of Famer and two-time Belmont Stakes-winner John Velazquez will provide his expertise, breaking from post 3.

“He’s had several different riders and it’s not something that’s bothered me,” McCarthy said. “It would have been nice to have Flavien back, but I feel we have a wonderful substitute. This has been Johnny’s home track for 25 plus years and he’s very familiar with this race and the way it plays out. I’m very happy with where I’m at.”
Rombauer is listed at 3-1 on the morning line.

The Belmont Stakes is carded as Race 11 with a post time of 6:49 p.m. Eastern. NBC will have live coverage starting at 5 p.m.