Essential Quality
Essential Quality overcame a game Hot Rod Charlie to win the Belmont. Photo by NYRA.

Hot Rod Charlie earned plenty of respect in Saturday’s 153rd renewal of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes.

But ultimately, it was Essential Quality who earned redemption and the victory in the third jewel of the Triple Crown.

Hot Rod Charlie sped to the early lead in the 1 ½-mile test, threw down punishing fractions while pushed by multiple rivals, and stayed on willingly to the end.

But he could not contain the well-handled Essential Quality, who bided his time in mid-pack before making a three-wide move, and wearing down his foe to win by 1 ¼ lengths in 2:27.11 over a fast main track.

Hot Rod Charlie was some 11 lengths clear of Preakness winner Rombauer, who could not go with the top pair but did manage to hold third, less than a length in front of Known Agenda.

Hot Rod Charlie, ridden by Flavien Prat, threw down an opening quarter-mile in 22.78 seconds and a half in 46.49 while pushed by the speedy Rock Your World. The mile, those same two up front, went by in 1:37.40.

But just as Rock Your World fell away, Essential Quality engaged. He was within a half-length while three wide with a half-mile to go. That ensured there would be no breather for Hot Rod Charlie.

Still, Hot Rod Charlie was stubborn. He was just a head behind Essential Quality leaving the furlong grounds while opening up a yawning gap back to the rest.

“Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race to hang around that late after doing most of the dirty work,” winning trainer Brad Cox said. “Our horse really showed his talent and stamina.” 

Essential Quality’s victory means that, for the second consecutive year, the three Triple Crown races will have three different winners. Also for the second consecutive year, the winner of each of the first two legs has raced in – and been defeated in – the subsequent leg.

Essential Quality, a son of Tapit trained by Cox for owner-breeder Godolphin, had won the first five races of his career to earn champion two-year-old honors and Kentucky Derby favoritism.

But in the Kentucky Derby, he tasted defeat for the first time when a tough start and wide journey left him with too much work to do. He finished fourth but was beaten by just a length by winner Medina Spirit, who is likely to be disqualified after testing positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory which is prohibited on race day.

Hot Rod Charlie, too, had run a good race in defeat in the Derby. While he had led virtually throughout in his win in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, the win which stamped his ticket to Louisville, in the Kentucky Derby he was fifth early, split foes, but could get no closer than third.

The matchup was the third between Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie; they had also squared off in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, which Essential Quality had won by three parts of a length.

“Our horse told us today that he’s a gamer,” Doug O’Neill, trainer of Hot Rod Charlie said today. “He got pushed. He did all the dirty work. Essential Quality ran a huge race and I think Charlie showed he was trying every step of the way from gate-to-wire. He just couldn’t hold off a champ.”

The result, after a tumultuous Triple Crown season, was a surprisingly formful one. Essential Quality was off as the 1.30-1 favorite, while Hot Rod Charlie was, at 4.80-1, the second choice. Show horse Rombauer was 5.70-1, the fourth choice of eight in the field.

“It was so special,” said Saez, who had crossed the wire first in the 2019 Kentucky Derby on Maximum Security only to be disqualified for impeding rivals. “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.”

Essential Quality returned $4.60 for the win and topped an exacta that paid $7.50 for a one-dollar wager. He now has six wins from seven starts and earnings of more than $3.2 million.

The race also provided validation – not that any was needed – for last year’s edition of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The top trio all ran in that contest last November, with Rombauer finishing fifth.

Essential Quality’s Belmont triumph provided the first Triple Crown victory for trainer Brad Cox, jockey Luis Saez, and owner Godolphin. In an odd twist, Cox may get his second in the coming weeks without racing. If Medina Spirit is, in fact, disqualified, that will elevate the Cox-trained Mandaloun to first in the Derby.