Essential Quality reasserts divisional leadership in historic Belmont Stakes

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

June 7th, 2021

When champion Essential Quality prevailed over brave frontrunner Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont S. (G1), he delivered a historic victory.

The first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner to capture the Belmont, Essential Quality became the fourth Belmont winner sired by Tapit, which elevated the stallion alongside legendary 19th-century sire Lexington for the all-time record. Moreover, the homebred scored a first U.S. classic victory for Godolphin, several hours after the global powerhouse won its second Epsom Derby (G1) with Adayar.

Three-year-old picture

Essential Quality was also reasserted his leadership over the three-year-old male division.

As last year’s champion two-year-old, the Brad Cox trainee held pro tem leadership as the unbeaten favorite going into the Kentucky Derby (G1). Essential Quality couldn’t put his best foot forward at Churchill Downs, after barging at the start and a wide trip throughout, yet still went down by only a length, in fourth.

His Derby loss knocked him off the podium. The three-year-old picture was scrambled all the more after the first-past-the-post in the Derby, Medina Spirit, tested positive for betamethasone, and then finished third, behind new shooter Rombauer, in the Preakness S. (G1).

Thus, when Essential Quality regained his winning habit in the Belmont, with Rombauer back in a distant third, he furnished welcome clarity. The best two-year-old, who ran arguably the best race in defeat in the Derby, was back on top.

Depth of Breeders' Cup Juvenile

Hot Rod Charlie underscores the point. He was runner-up to Essential Quality at the Breeders’ Cup and a track record-setting winner of the Louisiana Derby (G2), prior to a close third in the Kentucky Derby.

The 2020 Breeders' Cup Juvenile has stood up well. Fourth-place finisher Jackie’s Warrior dropped off the Triple Crown trail because of distance limitations but remains top-class around one turn. Jackie’s Warrior was a heroic winner of the Pat Day Mile (G2), before he just missed in the Woody Stephens S. (G1), after a troubled start. The Juvenile fifth is none other than Preakness winner Rombauer, and the seventh-placer, Lexington (G3) victor King Fury, is on the comeback trail from illness. Although Juvenile third Keepmeinmind has not progressed as hoped, a planned switch to turf could rejuvenate him.

Years with three different classic winners

Essential Quality’s restored status could be temporary. When the three Triple Crown races have all been won by different horses, the eventual champions can come from anywhere.

The three jewels have been won by three different horses in 21 of the past 50 years. A look at the Eclipse Award champions in those years reveals a pretty even distribution of résumés, not only across the Triple Crown races, but even horses who didn’t compete in the classics.

Five of those 21 champions finished first in the Kentucky Derby — Spend a Buck (1985), Unbridled (1990), Animal Kingdom (2011), and Authentic (2020), as well as Maximum Security (2019), who was disqualified for interference.

Five of the 21 won the Preakness — Snow Chief (1986), Prairie Bayou (1993), Bernardini (2006), Curlin (2007), and Lookin at Lucky (2010).

The Belmont winner ended up being champion four times in those 21 years — Temperence Hill (1980), Conquistador Cielo (1982), A.P. Indy (1992), and Summer Bird (2009).

But four champions who missed the Triple Crown came on strong in the second half of the season to overtake the classic veterans. While Wajima (1975) was followed at a long interval by Tiznow (2000), it’s happened more recently, with Arrogate (2016) and West Coast (2017).

Finally, three of those 21 champions were beaten in Triple Crown races but improved to top the division by year’s end. Slew o’ Gold (1983), Skip Away (1996), and Will Take Charge (2013) show that it’s not over till it’s over.

That historical summary gives hope to Essential Quality’s rivals. One of them happens to be his stablemate, Mandaloun, who would be awarded the Kentucky Derby if Medina Spirit is disqualified for his positive test. Mandaloun is likely to fare better than the promoted 2019 Derby winner, Country House, who never raced again.

Rarity of two-year-old champions repeating at three

If Essential Quality can maintain his ranking through the fall, he’d enhance his historical profile.

Since the Eclipse Awards era began a half-century ago, only six colts reigned as champion at both two and three. Four were Triple Crown winners — Secretariat (1972-73), Seattle Slew (1976-77), Affirmed (1977-78), and American Pharoah (2014-15). Spectacular Bid (1978-79) won two-thirds of the crown but suffered a bitter loss in the Belmont.

The outlier of the group is Lookin at Lucky, who was an unlucky sixth in the Derby, rebounded in the Preakness, and skipped the Belmont. Although Essential Quality is a different type overall, he shares the experience of setting the record straight after the Derby.

The relative rarity of a colt continuing his dominance from two to three, combined with the historical context of years with three classic winners, portends an ongoing battle for the Eclipse Award.