The fans were back at Belmont Park on Saturday and the 11,000 in attendance got to witness a stretch duel between favorite Essential Quality and pacesetter Hot Rod Charlie in the 153rd running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
Essential Quality won the duel by 1¼ lengths to capture the third leg of the Triple Crown in a time of 2:27.11.
Essential Quality, who went off as the 6-5 favorite, is owned by Dubai-based Godolphin Stables. He was ridden by Luis Saez for his first Triple Crown victory. Essential Quality finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby as the favorite, his only loss in seven career races.
"We were so fortunate to have another opportunity," Godolphin racing manager Jimmy Bell said in the winner’s circle. "He’s never run a bad race in his life. I think he showed today. He met the test of a champion today. To do what he did as a 2-year-old, to come to these races as a 3-year-old and then the mile-and-a-half classic . . . a great tribute to him.
"In all fairness, [at the Derby] he probably ran as good a race as he’s run. We all wish sometimes to work out a better trip, but it wasn’t meant to be and that’s horse racing. We were just looking forward for an opportunity to showcase his talent and his versatility. Very happy he got the job done for us today."
It was also the first Triple Crown victory for trainer Brad Cox. But it might eventually go down as his second if Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is stripped of that win after failing a postrace drug test in a controversy that cost Hall of Fame Trainer Bob Baffert a chance to have any horses in the Belmont.
Cox is the trainer for Mandaloun, who finished second in the Derby.
"That was a tremendous race today," Cox said. "That was a long way around there — a mile and a half. But it was exciting."
Of the blistering pace (22.78 seconds for the first quarter and 46.49 for the half) set by Hot Rod Charlie on a hot early evening, Cox said: "I think it benefited our horse. Obviously, Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race and I thought the hot pace . . . we were in a good spot where they would come back. He ran a tremendous race on the lead and Luis did a fantastic job of getting in position, turning for home, and he was able to really show his stamina late."
In 2019, Saez crossed the finish line first at the Kentucky Derby aboard Maximum Security for an apparent victory. But Maximum Security was disqualified for interference and second-place finisher Country House was awarded the win.
After Saturday’s victory, Belmont regular Saez said: "This is my second home . . . This was the race that I wanted to win. Today, we made history."
Preakness winner Rombauer finished third 12 lengths back with a new jockey in Hall of Famer John Velazquez. Flavien Prat, who rode Rombauer to victory in the Preakness, was committed to ride Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont.
Velazquez was the jockey for Medina Spirit in the first two legs.
Medina Spirit, who finished third in the Preakness, was not permitted to run in the Belmont. Saturday’s eight-horse field included none from Baffert, who was temporarily suspended by the New York Racing Association last month after Medina Spirit failed a drug test following the victory. The test result was confirmed this week. A process to disqualify Medina Spirit as the Derby winner could take months or longer.
Last year’s Belmont was held on June 20 without fans and was the first leg of the Triple Crown instead of the last. It was run at 1 1/8 miles instead of 1½. The winner was Tiz the Law. In 2019, 56,217 attended the Belmont. Crowds at the Belmont can swell to 90,000 when a Triple Crown is on the line.