Essential Quality lived up to his name and proved a worthy favorite in the 2021 Belmont Stakes for Godolphin at Belmont Park on Saturday June 5. There was nail-biting duel with the long-time leader, Hot Rod Charlie, in the stretch that he eventually won by a length and a quarter under Luis Saez. Neither horse deserved to lose.
The win gave Essential Quality’s ecstatic trainer Brad Cox a long overdue first classic win. He started as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby but was bumped badly at the start and things continued to go wrong for him throughout the race resulting in a fourth placed finish. It was a terrible time to experience his first defeat, albeit by just a length after being forced to take a much longer route than the first colt across the wire, Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit.
This gray son of Tapit owned and bred by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s racing operation out of an Elusive Quality mare delivered the perfect end to an extraordinary day for his connections. Essential Quality was expected to carry the royal blue Godolphin silks to victory but they enjoyed top level wins earlier at the same track and further afield that were not widely predicted.
What happened in the Belmont?
Hot Rod Charlie broke well from gate four and Prat urged him forward to take the lead and the shortest path going into the first turn. Rock Your World was not so sharp out of the gates but was rushed up by Joel Rosario to take second on his outside. The Japanese trained long shot France Go De Ina was also ridden aggressively by Ricardo Santana and was three wide in the front row rounding the turn.
The Preakness winner Rombauer was kept tight to the rail by John Velazquez behind the leading trio. Saez raced behind him in fifth on Essential Quality with Known Agenda and Overtook next, leaving Bourbonic at the rear of the pack. The fierce battle on the pace resulted in a scorching first quarter of 22.78 seconds, Essential Quality stayed in fifth place, six lengths behind the leaders.
Hot Rod Charlie held on to the lead by a head as Rock Your World raced at his side. France Go De Ina dropped back a length behind them by the half mile completed in 46.49 with Rombauer and Essential Quality about four lengths further back. Saez began making ground on the leaders as they approached the mile, easing past Rombauer and joining the front row approaching the final turn. The move left him four wide momentarily but he closed in on the leading pair as France Go De Ina dropped back. Rombauer stayed close to the rail in fifth as they rounded the turn whilst Jose Ortiz pushed Known Agenda up on his outside.
At the top of the stretch Hot Rod Charlie clung to the lead with Essential Quality replacing the weakening Rock Your World at his side. Rombauer passed Rock Your World to take third but it was soon obvious that the race was between Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality as they had their own battle, well ahead of the pack. Close to the wire Essential Quality finally managed to pass the incredibly determined Hot Rod Charlie. Prat typically looked behind him when he knew the battle was lost and put his whip down as no one would threaten him for second place.
Rombauer finished third for Michael McCarthy beaten 12 lengths with Todd Pletcher’s Known Agenda and Bourbonic not far behind him in that order. John Sadler’s Rock Your World weakened to take sixth, beaten 22 lengths.
Doug O’Neill was delighted with Hot Rod Charlie’s gutsy performance. It was a case of déjà vu as his colt had been beaten by Essential Quality by a similar distance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He saluted Prat’s tactics as he had to try something different to beat him and taking the shortest trip possible might have changed the result without the intense pressure on the early pace.
Group 1 Wins Galore for Godolphin
The biggest surprise was the success of another Godolphin homebred in the Group 1 Epsom Derby much earlier in the day across the Atlantic. Adayar, a son of the legendary Frankel out of a Dubawi mare, defied expectations to win by over four lengths. Their royal blue silks were coupled with a red cap demonstrating that he was Godolphin’s third string in the race. He was sent off at 16/1 and thought to be a no hoper by most, including his jockey Adam Kirby who helped to break the colt. It did not prevent him from giving Adayar the perfect ride, taking the brave man’s route through a narrow gap to achieve his first Derby score.
Unlike Essential Quality Adayar did not appear to have a race-winning resume and broke from the ill-fated stall one in the Epsom Derby but he defied the massive losing trend of his gate to win by over four lengths. Trained by Charlie Appleby in the UK, his more fancied stablemate Hurricane Lane (6/1) took third under their retained jockey, William Buick.
Kirby was booked to ride a more likely looking winner, John Leeper, trained by Ed Dunlop but was replaced by Frankie Dettori when the Italian became available a few days before the race. Dettori’s mount, John Leeper (8/1), finished with only two horses behind him in the field of 11. The good to soft ground probably helped Adayar’s chances. Frankel’s progeny cope with give in the ground and this colt had the size of hoof required to sink less than most.
Three hours before the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park Godolphin’s Althiqa (74/10) and Summer Romance (36/5) took the first two places in the Grade 1 Longines Just a Game Stakes, a race run over a mile on turf for fillies and mares. Luis Saez set the pace from flagfall on Summer Romance and was only headed by the more patiently ridden Althiqa under Mike Smith in the final 100 yards.
Althiqa, a daughter of Dark Angel out of a Shamardal mare, was less popular in the betting but carried the all blue (including cap) silks suggesting she was the first choice of connections. Both fillies are trained in the UK by Appleby. Chad Brown’s 5/2 favorite Pocket Square took fifth, beaten almost five lengths under Flavien Prat after racing rather keenly.
For Godolphin, June 5 2021 was a day that will be marked forever.