Brad Cox is one who often chooses his words carefully, not so much in that he is restrained with his statements, but more a case of making sure he is both accurate and confident in what he is putting out to masses.
When the reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer talks up his horses, he will dole out accolades where appropriate while also making sure there is a realistic tone to his expectations. So, when the Louisville native held court outside his Churchill Downs barn the morning after the first leg of the Triple Crown and said the thing he knew might ruffle a feather or two, it spoke to how deep his conviction ran where his champion charge Essential Quality was concerned.
“Not taking anything away from the top three horses but (Essential Quality) was the best horse yesterday,” Cox said the day after the son of Tapit crossed the wire fourth as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby (G1). “Some people may not agree with that, but I think he was the best horse yesterday.”
Another tidbit Cox shared that same morning was the fact he told his assistant that Godolphin’s homebred colt was future winner of the Belmont Stakes (G1) after the first time he worked him. On the evening of June 5 as Essential Quality lengthened his stride around the vast Belmont Park oval, he validated both of his trainer’s bold proclamations.
The leader of the sophomore ranks going into the Triple Crown has exited the final leg of the five-week test with his standing intact and reputation restored. After suffering the first loss of his career in the Kentucky Derby on May 1, Essential Quality showed his team he is who they thought he was when he fought past a brave Hot Rod Charlie in a stirring stretch battle to prevail by 1 ¼-lengths in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes before an announced crowd of 11,238.
As the gray specimen reached the wire in a final time of 2:27.11 following his 12-furlong journey, a whole host of milestones were checked off by those closest to him – including a couple brought on by a couple of controversies. For Cox, he now has his first win in an American classic to go along with his Eclipse Awards and Breeders’ Cup trophies, although, as the trainer of Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun, he might end up with the roses after all if Medina Spirit is ultimately disqualified for testing positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone in his post-race sample.
For Essential Quality’s jockey Luis Saez, his winning Belmont ride marked his first victory in a Triple Crown race, but not the first time he has hit the line first in a classic. The native of Panama was aboard Maximum Security when the colt was disqualified from his win in the 2019 Kentucky Derby due to interference.
For owner-breeder Godolphin, the global powerhouse celebrated seeing its blue silks win the Belmont for the first time while more than 700 miles away, Essential Quality’s sire Tapit had his already illustrious career added to as the star of the Gainesway breeding shed became just the second stallion ever and first in over a century to sire four winners of the Belmont Stakes.
It was only fitting that the colt who has been head and shoulders above his classmates for most of his days on the track ended up elevating those who are already accustomed to sitting in rarified air.
“We were so fortunate to have another opportunity (after running fourth in the Kentucky Derby),” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA. “He has never run a bad race in his life, and I think he showed today he met the test of a champion. To do what he did as a 2-year-old and come through these races as a 3-year-old with the mile-and-a-half classic, it’s a great tribute to him.
“We were just looking for an opportunity to showcase his talent and his versatility, and I am very happy he got the job done for us today.”
The regard Essential Quality has been held in is due to the fact he has displayed all the intangibles truly good horses boast.
When he capped off his three-race, championship 2-year-old campaign with a victory in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) last November, he showed he could rally from well off the pace after previously winning the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) stalking the early lead. A sloppy track was no issue for him in taking the Southwest Stakes (G3) in his 2021 seasonal bow and his triumph in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes saw him handle a rival reluctant to yield in Highly Motivated.
A bump at the start and subsequent wide trip in the Kentucky Derby – he traveled 68 feet further than Medina Spirit according to Trakus – was blamed for his loss that day but Essential Quality still carried the faith of the betting public, who sent him off as the 6-5 favorite in the eight-horse Belmont field out of post No. 2. With expected pacesetter Rock Your World failing to get away sharp out of post 7, it was Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie who was sent to the front with longshot France Go de Ina chasing him into the first turn while Essential Quality settled in fifth just behind Preakness Stakes (G1) winner Rombauer.
“In the Kentucky Derby, we were confident and thought he was going to win. But we had a little unlucky start breaking from there,” said Saez, who dedicated his win to his late brother, Juan, who was killed in a racing accident in 2014. “Today, the big thing was to try to break cleanly. For the rest, I knew he was going to do it.
“It was a pretty nice trip. We knew there was going to be a lot of speed, so we tried to get a clean break and be right there. On the backside, he picked up the bridle and was moving pretty well, so I’m not going to try to take him back and go inside when he was running pretty well.”
Hot Rod Charlie set a blistering pace up front, going :22.78 and :46.49 through the first half mile as Rock Your World pressed him in second and Essential Quality stayed in an outside path in fifth with Rombauer just ahead. As they reached the far turn, Essential Quality had advanced to third while traveling four-wide, but Rock Your World gave way leaving the top finishers in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to fight it out down the lane.
““I thought (the pace) benefitted our horse,” Cox said. “Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race and I thought, with the hot pace, we were in a good spot where they’d come back. (Saez) did a fantastic job putting him in position turning for home and he really showed his stamina late.
“It looked like the horse on the inside still had run left, so I knew it was going to be a battle down the lane.”
At the head of the stretch, Essential Quality put his head in front but Hot Rod Charlie’s was still throwing counterpunches after his taxing exploits on the lead. In the final furlong, the Doug O’Neill trained colt finally yielded as Essential Quality earned his third career Grade 1 triumph and sixth win overall from seven career starts.
“It was such a great stretch duel and he ran against the 2-year-old champ,” O’Neill said of Hot Rod Charlie. “This may sound cocky but I wasn’t that surprised when they went as fast as they did early and he kept fighting on the inside. I knew Flavien (Prat) is so confident in this colt, and this colt is so confident in Flavien. He rode with a lot of confidence and I wouldn’t second-guess him and I wouldn’t do anything different. We just got beat by a better horse today.
“The heart this horse has in him is unbelievable. He’s got so much try in him it’s crazy. So does the winner, of course.”
Rombauer was a distant third, 11 ¼ lengths behind Hot Rod Charlie with Known Agenda and stablemate Bourbonic fourth and fifth, respectively, for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. Rock Your World was sixth, followed by Pletcher trainee Overtook. France Go de Ina was eased to the wire.
“He broke good. We saved all the ground,” jockey John Velazquez said of Rombauer. “He tried his best, couldn’t get there. I had a good trip. I went behind the winners and the winning move was on the outside, a little too soon for me, so I waited a little longer and was a good third.”
Essential Quality returned $4.60 on a $2 win bet. By acing the 12-furlong test, Essential Quality earned $800,000 and improved his career bankroll to more than $3.2 million.
“We always thought he had the ability,” Cox said. “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.”