Three things we learned from the 2021 Belmont Stakes

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June 7th, 2021

Essential Quality lived up to his name in the Big Apple on Saturday night, as the Brad Cox-trained three-year-old showed every ounce of quality to win the Belmont S. (G1).

The hot favorite finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby (G1), was well supported in the betting, and eventually paid $4.60 for a $2 win wager.

In a thrilling race, set up by the electric pace from Derby third Hot Rod Charlie, Essential Quality reversed the Derby form to pull away and win by 1 1/4 lengths.

Preakness S. (G1) winner Rombauer was back in third, but 11 1/4 lengths behind the leading pair.

Here are three things we learned from the big race in New York.

The winner simply has bags of quality

Nothing really went right for Essential Quality in the Kentucky Derby. He was caught up in plenty of trouble early, was given a couple of bumps at the start, and worked hard to hold his place in the race. As they came into the straight, jockey Luis Saez was pushed wide but Essential Quality showed plenty of heart to be beaten just a length.

On the flip side, everything went perfectly in the Belmont, and we got to see just how good Essential Quality is. Hot Rod Charlie set a blistering early pace, and Saez was able to stalk in the middle of the pack.

Three furlongs out, he started to make his move, and within a furlong, his turn of foot gave him the lead. Hot Rod Charlie battled on, but Essential Quality had the grit to win out.

That’s six wins from seven races in his career, and it would be incredibly hard to oppose him back down to 1 1/4 miles in the Travers S. (G1) this summer at Saratoga.

Hot Rod Charlie’s red-hot pace

Plenty of credit must go to Hot Rod Charlie. He put in one hell of a run, and his connections have suggested they’d like to do battle with Essential Quality once again this summer.

Whether he can turn the tables is another matter, but his performance Saturday was eye-catching. Urged on by jockey Flavien Prat from the start, Hot Rod Charlie set the pace and clocked an unbelievable first quarter-mile in 22.78 — the fastest in the race’s history. With Rock Your World applying pressure, Hot Rod Charlie reached the half-mile in 46.49, and at that pace over a 12-furlong trip, you’d expect him to back up the home straight.

The next two furlongs were slower, as the leader took a breather, and the race appeared set up for Essential Quality, as Rock Your World threw in the towel. But despite that rapid first four furlongs, Hot Rod Charlie found more. His challenge faded toward the line, but he was 22 lengths clear of Rock Your World, who attempted to match the early pace.

These tactics are well worth watching next time out. Hot Rod Charlie won the Louisiana Derby (G2) on the front end in March and put in a tremendous fight at Belmont Park to almost pull off the trick again. In races like the Kentucky Derby or the Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) at the start of the year, Hot Rod Charlie tried to stalk the pace but was not able to pass the leaders.

He clearly likes to dictate from the front, and a cut back in trip will only benefit him over the summer

The Preakness/Belmont double is not easy

In the last 25 years, only four horses have managed to win the Preakness and the Belmont — Triple Crown winners Justify (2018) and American Pharoah (2015), as well as Afleet Alex (2005) and Point Given (2001).

It is not easy, as Rombauer found out.

He was perfectly positioned, like Essential Quality, to take advantage of the quick early pace and pull off the same move that won him the Preakness less than a month ago. But when push came to shove, Rombauer’s challenge fizzled, and he finished well behind the leading pair.

There are question marks over whether the extra distance hurt his finishing speed, but jockey John Velazquez felt the answer was simple.

“This is why the Triple Crown is so difficult to win," he said. "When you have fresh horses going into the races, it’s really hard."

Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie had an extra 14 days rest between the Derby and the Belmont, while Rombauer only had three weeks to prepare after the Preakness.