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Kentucky Derby returnees loom large in Belmont Stakes

Profile Picture: James Scully

May 27th, 2021

Legendary trainer Woody Stephens won five consecutive Belmont S. (G1) from 1982 through 1986, and every winner had raced within 21 days of the final jewel in the Triple Crown. Freshening up a three-year-old for a 1 1/2-mile dirt race used to be considered foolish.

When Commendable went straight from the Kentucky Derby (G1) to win the Belmont in 2000, he was recognized as the first horse to accomplish the feat after a five-week layoff. June 5 will be the 153rd edition of the Belmont, and times have changed significantly, to say the least.

Six Kentucky Derby returnees, including leading contenders Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, are considered probable for the 2021 Belmont. Rock Your World, who was last seen missing the break as the 4.70-1 second choice in the Kentucky Derby, appears to be the likely pacesetter.

Coming back from the five-week hiatus has become common practice for prominent stables nowadays. Recent Hall of Fame inductee Todd Pletcher, who has recorded two of his three Belmont wins with last-out Kentucky Derby participants, will bring back Bourbonic and Known Agenda from the first leg of the Triple Crown. The latter merits serious respect.

Excluding last year, when the Belmont took place first in the Triple Crown at a 1 1/8-mile distance, four of the last eight Belmont winners were exiting the Kentucky Derby.

Let’s take a look at the probable Kentucky Derby returnees:

Essential Quality

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Essential Quality with Luis Saez riding wins the Breeders Cup Juvenile for trainer Brad Cox at Keeneland Race Course, Lexington, KY 11.5.2020 (Horsephotos.com/Cecilia Gustavson)

Roughed up at the break, Essential Quality was ridden along to gain position after the poor start and the 2.90-1 Kentucky Derby favorite traveled extremely wide the rest of the way, missing by only a length in fourth. The Brad Cox-trained colt won’t be overlooked by trip handicappers after the respectable performance, and sire Tapit has produced three Belmont winners. It will be no surprise to see once-beaten Essential Quality rebound in the Belmont.

Hot Rod Charlie

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Hot Rod Charlie canters in preparation at Fair Grounds Racecourse (Photo by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires)

Runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Hot Rod Charlie registered his second career win when comfortably leading wire-to-wire in the TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby (G2). Off as the 5.60-1 third choice in the Kentucky Derby, the Doug O’Neill-trained Oxbow colt was forced to check entering the first turn, but managed to settle into a good stalking trip. He offered a nice bid to nearly draw even entering the stretch, but Hot Rod Charlie could never get past Medina Spirit or Mandaloun, winding up a close third. Those runners won’t be back for the Belmont, and Hot Rod Charlie keeps Flavien Prat, who departs Preakness (G1) winner Rombauer. Plenty to like about Hot Rod Charlie’s chances.

Known Agenda

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Known Agenda winning the Florida Derby (G1) - Derbe Glass/Coglianese Photography

All three of his wins have come at a 1 1/8-mile distance, including a 2 3/4-length breakthrough triumph in the Florida Derby (G1), and Known Agenda looks like the type who will continue to improve with experience and maturity. He was adversely affected by the innermost post in the 19-horse Kentucky Derby field, retreating to 17th in the opening stages, and offered a decent rally for ninth. He’s certainly eligible to receive a more favorable stalking trip in the Belmont with Irad Ortiz Jr. By Curlin, Known Agenda will draw comparisons to Palace Malice and Tapwrit, who came back to win the Belmont for Pletcher after unplaced outings at Churchill Downs.

Rock Your World

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Rock Your World winning the Santa Anita Derby (G1) - © Benoit Photo

A convincing wire-to-wire winner of the Santa Anita Derby (G1) in his dirt debut, Rock Your World was the expected pacesetter in the Kentucky Derby, but he lost all chance when breaking poorly from post 15. The Candy Ride colt shows a couple of quick five-furlong works in the interim, and the dark bay will look to “right the ship” for trainer John Sadler. With little additional speed expected, Rock Your World rates as a dangerous frontrunning contender.


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Bourbonic winning the Wood Memorial (G2) - Chelsea Durand/Coglianese Photography

After lodging the biggest upset in Wood Memorial (G2) history, closing last-to-first to prevail by a head at 72-1, Bourbonic offered a belated run for 13th in the Kentucky Derby. The Calumet Farm homebred by Bernardini has made steady progress for Pletcher since dropping into the maiden claiming ranks last December, but it’s hard to envision Bourbonic’s deep-closing tactics playing favorably in the Belmont.

Brooklyn Strong

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Brooklyn Strong (Coglinaese Photography/Susie Raisher)

Wet conditions would move up Brooklyn Strong, who turned in a career-best when capturing the Remsen S. (G2) over a sloppy track last December. He didn’t race again until April, checking in a well-beaten fifth in the Wood Memorial, and raced far back throughout when 15th in the Kentucky Derby. The New York-bred Wicked Strong gelding probably needed the last two starts from a fitness perspective, and owns 2-1-0-1 record at Belmont Park, but Brooklyn Strong will face a difficult challenge against this level of competition.