By Frank J. Buchman
Essential Quality edged out Hot Rod Charlie to win the 153rd Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 5, 2021.
“The sun was shining, and the track was fast,” exclaimed Melissa Hoppert, race analyst. “After a year away because of the coronavirus pandemic, the crowd at Elmont, New York, was more joyful than inebriated.”
Favored to win the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky, Essential Quality could not overcome a bad start there. Thus, his owner and trainer decided not to race their horse at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland.
That decision automatically eliminated possibility of there being a Triple Crown winner this year. The Triple Crown title goes to a three-year-old Thoroughbred winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.
“Essential Quality’s connections still believed that the two-year-old champion belonged at the top of his three-year-old class,” Hoppert said.
Their plan paid off when Essential Quality beat Hot Rod Charlie down the stretch in what became a two-horse race. Leading by one-and-a-quarter lengths, Essential Quality completed the mile-and-a-half in 2:27.11.
Sent off as the 6-5 favorite, Essential Quality paid $4.60 on a $2 bet to win. Rombauer, winner of the Preakness Stakes, finished third, 11 ¼ lengths behind Hot Rod Charlie.
It was the first Belmont victory for trainer Brad Cox, 41, winner of last year’s Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer. In 2020, Cox saddled four Breeders’ Cup winners and won 30 graded stakes races.
Essential Quality is owned by the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, controversial ruler of Dubai. A city in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is known for luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture and a lively nightlife scene.
Sheikh Mohammed is founder of the Maktoum family-owned Godolphin Stable and owns Darley, a Thoroughbred breeding operation in six countries.
A keen equestrian, Sheikh Mohammed rode the horse Madji Du Pont to win the 2012 World Endurance Championship. He is also a poet in his native Arabic.
Luis Saez rode Essential Quality to the 2021 Belmont Stakes title. “He broke clean, and the rest of the way I knew he was going to do it,” Saez said.
Saez’s first thought after the race was of his brother, Juan, who died in 2014. Just 17-years-old, Juan Saez was killed when the horse he was riding stumbled during a race at Indiana Grand.
“I was giving thanks to the Lord and my brother Juan; he’s always with me,” Luis Saez said. “I dedicated this to him.”
“Joyous atmosphere at Belmont Saturday made it seem all was right with horseracing, but that’s not the case,” Hoppert evaluated. “It has been a tumultuous spring for the sport.”
Medina Spirit’s win in the Kentucky Derby was stained for the horse and trainer Bob Baffert with a failed drug test. However, the horse was allowed to run in the Preakness, where he placed third, while another Derby sample was tested.
Then, the New York Racing Association barred Baffert from running horses at any New York tracks until further notice. “Bob Baffert is a two-time Triple Crown winner and the most famous person in the sport,” Hoppert contended.
Last week, the positive test was confirmed. Runner-up Mandaloun will likely be declared the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner. Medina Spirit is only the second winner in the 147-year Kentucky Derby history disqualified by a failed drug test.
“Churchill Downs has suspended Baffert from entering horses there for two years,” Hoppert said.
“Reckless practices jeopardizing horses and compromising integrity of our sport are not acceptable,” said Bill Carstanjen, Churchill Downs chief executive. “As a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated.”
However, Baffert has said he will fight the suspension rulings, calling the incident “a complete injustice.”
The scandal came as horseracing prepares to implement the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act passed last year in Congress.
“It will take effect July 1, 2022, and calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission,” Hoppert said. “Uniform rules are to be written with penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.”
Even without the renewed drug problems, horseracing had been through a tumultuous time of late after the coronavirus pandemic.
“None of the Triple Crown races admitted spectators last year, while the Derby and the Preakness were delayed,” Hoppert said. “The Belmont was run last June as the Derby followed in September and the Preakness came in October.”
“Only 11,238 fans were at the Belmont racetrack on Saturday,” Hoppert said. “Belmont’s attendance record of 120,139 was set in 2004, when Birdstone denied Smarty Jones a Triple Crown sweep.”
Essential Quality, ridden by jockey Luis Saez, won the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes.