Essential Quality
Despite suffering his first career loss when finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, champion Essential Quality still heads into the June 5 Belmont Stakes as the favorite. Coady Photography.

Essential Quality Still the One to Beat as Triple Crown Season Draws to a Close

By Alicia Hughes

There is still one more chapter to be penned about a 2021 Triple Crown season that will likely require a full novel to properly explain the events of the last five weeks. Amidst the atomic levels of fallout saturating the Thoroughbred industry, there is some irony that the figure who finds himself in the same well-regarded position he held at the start of the odyssey is the one coming off the first major setback of his career. 

Heading into the first leg of the Triple Crown, champion Essential Quality had earned the privilege of shouldering the heaviest burden of expectation. With his unblemished record, his Eclipse Award-winning form, and a running style devoid of any obvious vulnerability, the Godolphin homebred went to post in the Kentucky Derby (G1) with both the betting public and his camp expecting the son of Tapit to complete a coronation. 

A combination of circumstances led to a singular letdown amongst his team as Essential Quality could do no better than fourth in the 10-furlong classic. Adding to the sting of the colt’s first defeat was the fact his trainer still believes the effort his gray charge put forth that day actually solidified his stature as the best of his generation.

With the Kentucky Derby first-place finisher currently in California under a shroud of controversy and a Preakness Stakes (G1) hero who is more upstart than proven, Essential Quality comes to the $1.5 million, Grade 1 Belmont Stakes on June 5 with the mantle of leadership still his for the taking. Once more, he has been installed as the favorite to leave his classmates in his wake and this time, he can also restore a bit of divisional order should he earn his bit of redemption.

It’s been a long, strange trip for the Thoroughbred industry the last fistful of weeks as the headlines have been dominated by news of Medina Spirit facing a possible disqualification from his win in the Kentucky Derby after testing positive for the corticosteroid betamethasone in his post-race sample. Resolution on that front may be a ways out, but Essential Quality can give his Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox his first official win in a Triple Crown race should he live up to his billing in the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. 

“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 also trains Kentucky Derby runner-up Mandaloun, who would be declared the race winner if Medina Spirit is disqualified. “He’s accomplished so much already, being a champion 2-year-old. But at some point, he’ll be retired to stud and it’s our job now to continue to add to his legacy. A Grade 1 win at 3 is going to be huge for this horse and we’re hopeful it can happen in the Belmont.”

When the Michael McCarthy-trained Rombauer upset the Preakness Stakes at odds of 11-1 – his first win on dirt, no less – it served to further elevate Essential Quality given that the reigning juvenile male champion soundly defeated that challenger when the two contested the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 3.

Cox has said in recent weeks that he pegged Essential Quality as a Belmont horse the first time he worked the colt and, even with his loss in the Kentucky Derby, the 2020 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner still has the most complete resume of the eight horses set to enter the starting gate on Saturday. Before enduring a wide trip on Derby day – one Cox believes cost him the victory – Essential Quality had won his five previous starts in a variety of fashions, handling off tracks and various pace set ups with equal levels of aplomb. 

His sire Tapit has had three of his offspring earn Belmont Stakes victories already and, contrary to the notion that longer distances favor closers, Essential Quality’s tactical speed and ability to get into a high-cruising rhythm is a common recipe for success at 1 ½ miles. Should he get the chance to uncork all of his best weapons this weekend, his connections expect they will have ample chance to celebrate as the field makes its way down the lengthy Belmont stretch.

“It was his race to lose in the Derby and he went off as a deserving favorite and I would imagine he would go off as the favorite again Saturday,” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA. “It’s not so much redemption as you just want to give him the opportunity to give the best account of himself he can. We’re happy with the outcome as long as he gets the opportunity to give his best effort.

“He’s not one dimensional. He’s got versatility and adaptability and as a result, I think (jockey) Luis (Saez) will just ride the race as he finds it. With 1 ½-miles in a relatively small field, there is going to be hopefully not much drama assuming everybody gets a clean break.”

This year will mark the first time since 2010 no horse will compete in all three legs of the American classics as Essential Quality and fellow Kentucky Derby holder overs Rock Your World, Hot Rod Charlie, Known Agenda, and Bourbonic all bypassed the Preakness Stakes to freshen up for Belmont Park’s signature test. And in the quest to make amends for a lone blight, Essential Quality has company in that camp as well.

Hronis Racing and Michael Talla’s Rock Your World knows a thing or two about a trip going awry on the first Saturday in May. The winner of the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1) was taken out of his front-running game when he bumped with Essential Quality at the start of the 10-furlong test and ended up shuffled back en route to a 17th place finish. 

Trainer John Sadler said he knew the colt’s chances were over about one second into the Kentucky Derby but, with a much smaller field in the Belmont, Rock Your World is expected to get himself to the front out of post No. 7 on Saturday and see if his dam sire’s stamina (2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker) can last over the expansive oval. 

“We’re calling it the redemption race for Rock Your World,” said Stephanie Hronis, who operates Hronis Racing with her husband Kosta. “He’s an exceptional horse. He’s got it on both sides (pedigree wise) where he can route on the dirt. The Derby was a good learning experience, but at the time it really did hurt. It was tough to see his race being over right in the first few steps from the gate. That was really tough to watch. But again, it was a good experience, and we think he has it in him.”

He hasn’t been favored in any of the four graded stakes he has contested but Hot Rod Charlie hasn’t done much wrong when surrounded by some of the best of his class. The Doug O’Neill trained son of Oxbow captured the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby on the front end and was able to sit a good trip in fifth in the Kentucky Derby on his way to hitting the wire third, beaten just a length for the victory. 

“He won the Louisiana Derby which is 1 3/16-miles and it wasn’t like he was shortening strides at the end there,” O’Neill said of Hot Rod Charlie. “None of these horses have tried (1 ½-miles) before, but you know he shows the tremendous amount of stamina on a daily basis and generally these kind of races…the early pace is pretty soft. It’s really about a horse that can breeze comfortably and be relaxed early and save themselves for the last part.

“Charlie has showed time and time again that he travels like a veteran horse and he’s just maturing with each race, so that is price that his maturity right now is what gives me the most confident that we’re going to see a good race.”

Jockey Flavien Prat guided Hot Rod Charlie in the Kentucky Derby and, even after winning the Preakness aboard Rombauer, the California-based rider opted to stick with O’Neill’s charge for the Belmont. Prat will now aim to become the first jockey since Calvin Borel took off Derby winner Mine That Bird to ride champion Rachel Alexandra to victory in the 2009 Preakness Stakes to win two legs of the Triple Crown with different horses.

Rombauer may have lost his winning pilot but the diminutive son of Twirling Candy will still be in exceptional hands with Hall of Famer John Velazquez taking over the reins Saturday. Though the Preakness marked Romabuer’s first win on dirt, the bay colt had teased of his potential when running second in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes last September and during his triumph in the El Camino Real Derby over the synthetic surface at Golden Gates Field on Feb. 13.

“I think the other day when he hit the finish line in Baltimore, he definitely did not look like a tiring horse to me,” McCarthy said of his first classic winner. “He was putting daylight between himself and the second and third-place finishers and galloped out well. So I think he’s got some room for improvement.”

No Belmont would be complete without Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher having a significant presence. The seven-time Eclipse Award winner is set to saddle three contenders in Known Agenda, Bourbonic, and Overtook as he seeks his fourth career Belmont score, having previously won with Rags to Riches (2007), Palace Malice (2013), and Tapwrit (2017).

Known Agenda is the most proven of the Pletcher crew, having captured the Grade 1 Florida Derby prior to finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby. The son of Curlin is capable of sitting a stalking trip on Saturday and his trainer was encouraged to see him trying to fight on to pass horses in the Kentucky Derby. 

“I think the real key is we need an honest pace and there are three of four horses in here who will try to be prominently placed early and if they set an honest pace, I think that will help all three of mine,” Pletcher said. 

Yuji Inaida’s France Go de Ina will look to nab the $1 million bonus offered to the connections of any Japan-based horse who wins the Belmont Stakes. A two-time winner at Hanshin Racecourse, trainer Hideyuki Mori moved him up in company, where he ran sixth in the Group 2 UAE Derby before finishing seventh in the Preakness in his North American debut.  

There isn’t a whole lot that has transpired the last five weeks that would remotely qualify as expected where the American classics are concerned. Hence, it is a tribute to Essential Quality’s established class that he can still exit this exercise the same way he entered – with divisional bragging rights firmly in his grasp.

“I shouldn’t say it would take the pressure off, but it kind of does once they can win a Grade 1 (at age 3), it kind of allows you to adjust your schedule a little bit,” Cox said. “I’m not saying how we would adjust it, but it does take pressure off when you’re able to capture a Grade 1 moving forward.”