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ELMONT, NY – With a result that ran quite similar to last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), the 2-year-old champion Essential Quality outlasted Hot Rod Charlie to win “The Test of the Champion,” Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) presented by NYRA Bets at Belmont Park.
Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie previously completed the exacta in the aforementioned 2020 World Championships at Keeneland.
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Essential Quality was bet down to 6/5 favoritism by the time he broke from post 2 under Luis Saez, and though Saez tried hard to keep their inside position inside of the early speed horses, Essential Quality was shuffled back to fifth heading into the clubhouse turn.
Flavien Prat hustled Hot Rod Charlie hard to the lead and secured command as France Go de Ina and Rock Your World flanked his outside while cornering and down the backstretch.
Hot Rod Charlie posted quick yet comfortable fractions of :22.78, :46.49, 1:12.07, and 1:37.40 for the opening mile and dispatched of France Go de Ina heading into the far turn.
Essential Quality ranged up to make a four-wide bid entering the turn and emerged onto the front stretch head-and-head with Hot Rod Charlie as Rock Your World dropped anchor.
Hot Rod Charlie fought back valiantly along the rail, but Essential Quality wore him down before eventually crossing 1 1/4 lengths in front. The final time for the 1 1/2-mile fast dirt route was 2:27.11.
“It was a pretty nice trip,” Saez said. “That’s what I was expecting. We knew there was going to be a lot of speed, so we tried to get a clean break and be right there. I knew he was going to run his race at the top of the stretch. 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.”
Though unable to hold off the winner late, the Doug O’Neill-trained Hot Rod Charlie was 11 1/4 lengths well clear of Rombauer, whom Prat rode to victory 3 weeks ago in the Preakness Stakes (G1).
“Our horse told us today that he’s a gamer,” O’Neill said. “He got pushed. He did all the dirty work. Essential Quality ran a huge race and I think Charlie showed he was trying every step of the way from gate to wire. He just couldn’t hold off a champ.”
Rombauer took third by 3/4 of a length over Known Agenda and the late-running Bourbonic got up for fifth behind them.
Rock Your World, Overtook, and an eased France Go de Ina completed the order of finish.
Essential Quality’s win was his second of the year and followed his first career defeat, a close fourth-place finish as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby (G1) – though he may eventually be placed third, pending the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s decision whether or not to disqualify the winning horse. Trained by Brad Cox, the Godolphin homebred Tapit colt’s record now stands at 7-6-0-0 with $3,215,144 earned to date.
“With the Tapit on top, we really thought he would get the mile and 1/2 when given the opportunity,” Cox said. “We always thought he had the ability. 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.”
Essential Quality returned $4.60 to win, $3 to place, and $2.60 to show. Hot Rod Charlie brought back $4.10 to place and $2.90 to show. Rombauer paid $3.50 to show.
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