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Entering the 2021 Triple Crown season, Essential Quality was considered by many to be the best three-year-old of his generation. While the Kentucky Derby may not have worked out the way trainer Brad Cox and the people involved with the colt may have hoped, their faith was rewarded on Saturday afternoon in Elmont, New York. Sent off as the 6/5 favorite, Essential Quality won the third leg of the Triple Crown, prevailing in the Belmont Stakes over Hot Rod Charlie following an exhilarating stretch-duel. Breaking from post position two, the son of Tapit was positioned well off the early lead by jockey Luis Saez, as the fractions set by Hot Rod Charlie during the beginning stages of the race were electric – :22.78 seconds for the first quarter-mile, with a half-mile up in :46.49 seconds. Saez eventually began inching his mount closer to the front while in the clear, confronting the pacesetter with three-eighths-of-a-mile remaining. In deep-stretch, the 2020 Champion Two-Year-Old displayed his class, inching away from the Doug O’Neill entrant, ultimately triumphing by just over a length.
Although he finished second, a legitimate argument can be made that Hot Rod Charlie ran the best race in Saturday’s “Test of the Champion” beneath jockey Flavien Prat, as the pace he set was otherworldly. When considering that the horses who were in closest attendance to the aggressive pace set by the son of Oxbow wound up finishing sixth and eighth in an eight-horse field, it is safe to assume the tempo was on the wicked side. It is also worth noting the Southern California import was positioned toward the inside portion of Belmont Park’s dirt surface, a portion of the racetrack that seemed to be difficult to run over for much of the afternoon. He may not have won the war, but Hot Rod Charlie earned an immense amount of respect in defeat.
Last month’s Preakness winner, Rombauer, gave a good account of himself on just three weeks rest, rallying to finish third (albeit a non-threatening third at that). Trained by Michael McCarthy, the winner of the second leg of this year’s Triple Crown finished more than eleven-lengths behind the top pair, indicating just how impressive the performances from the 1-2 finishers were. Three-quarters of a length behind Rombauer was Todd Pletcher’s Known Agenda, who was sent off at odds of 6/1. Jockey Jose Ortiz, who picked up the mount on the colt due to an incident at Belmont Park on Thursday afternoon in which his brother, Irad Ortiz, Jr., was injured, began pushing his mount along rounding the far turn while wide. A horse that does not possess much as far as brilliance is concerned, Known Agenda looked for a moment as if he were going to follow Essential Quality to the front, however his bid flattened out quickly, finishing evenly to end up fourth.
The latter-half of the field, comprised of (in order) Bourbonic, Rock Your World, Overtook, and France Go de Ina, never threatened, finishing well behind the top four. Although Rock Your World was disappointing, the pace scenario both he and France Go de Ina (who was eased in the stretch) would be difficult for any horse to fight through – again emphasizing the enormity of the effort from Hot Rod Charlie.
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Now, with the Triple Crown in the rear-view mirror, the focus of the three-year-olds will shift to marquee summer events like the Grade 1 Haskell from Monmouth Park in New Jersey and the Grade 1 Travers from Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. Essential Quality may be the boss of the division now, but horses like Hot Rod Charlie, Mandaloun, Rombauer, and Medina Spirit are not far behind.