By Dick Jerardi
It took until the first Saturday of June, but after the Kentucky Derby exacta was 12-1 over 26-1 (the final official result to be determined who knows when) and an 11-1 Preakness winner, 2-year-old champion Essential Quality, bet in every pool like the result was preordained, won the Belmont Stakes.
It was seven months earlier at Keeneland when Essential Quality passed Hot Rod Charlie in deep stretch to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. It was those two again in a private battle in the homestretch at Belmont Park, with Essential Quality, a head behind Hot Rod Charlie in the Derby when they were third and fourth, eventually getting by in the final 100 yards.
It was the first time the BC Juvenile 1-2 finished 1-2 in a Triple Crown race. Incredibly, Essential Quality was just the fourth BC Juvenile champ to win a Triple Crown race and the first to win the Belmont. Timber Country won the Preakness. Street Sense and Nyquist won the Derby. That is the list. In the 37-year history of the BC Juvenile, there have been 111 Triple Crown races run the subsequent year, with just those four winners.
Essential Quality ran a terrific fourth in the Derby, his only loss in seven races. Essential Quality’s owner and trainer are now in the line for that combined $100,000 bonus if they run the colt in the Sept. 25 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx. The Derby (if that can actually be determined), Preakness, Haskell, and Travers winners also qualify for bonus cash.
Hot Rod Charlie was heroic in defeat, the best runner-up finishes in the Belmont since Smarty Jones exactly 17 years before. The Doug O’Neill-trained colt set a very fast pace but was hounded throughout by Rock Your World and France Go de Ina. Those two dropped out on the far turn and then dropped way back. Hot Rod Charlie never stopped trying, but a really good colt, just cruising on the outside behind the leaders, was too fresh and too good in deep stretch.
It was a satisfying ending to a bizarre Triple Crown that began with trainer Bob Baffert winning his record seventh Derby. Then, it went off the rails a week later when Baffer revealed that Medina Spirit had tested positive for a therapeutic medication that cannot be in a horse’s system on race day.
At this moment, Medina Spirit is still the Derby winner. There will be a hearing before the Churchill Downs stewards about the Derby winner’s positive test for the anti-inflammatory Betamethasone. Eventually, a ruling will be handed down and then the litigation can begin in earnest. Don’t expect a final outcome for quite a while.
Meanwhile, Baffert has been banned for two years from running horses at any Churchill Downs-owned track which obviously includes the home of the Derby. The New York Racing Association has banned Baffert from running horses at its tracks (Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Saratoga) indefinitely. No other track has followed suit at this point. In fact, Monmouth Park officials said Baffert is welcome to run horses in the Haskell or any other race at the track. Same with Parx officials who said Baffert can run horses in the Pennsylvania Derby or any other of the track’s races.
Baffert and Medina Spirit became the story after the Derby win and stayed the story throughout the Triple Crown, even after Medina Spirit finished third in the Preakness and Baffert horses left the 2021 TC scene.
That was a shame as it took away from the brilliant performance by Rombauer in the Preakness and even better performances by Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont.
But that is the world we live in. Controversy sells.
The good news is the horses will continue to run and as we head into summer, with the Haskell, Travers, and Pa. Derby looming, the 2020 2-year-old champion Essential Quality, Blue Grass and Belmont win on his 2021 resume, is the mid-year leader for the 3-year-old champion, with absolutely nothing decided.
REMEMBER THE MAINSTAY
About 24 hours before the Belmont Stakes, Parx trainer Butch Reid unleashed another powerhouse 2-year-old filly. Mainstay, a half-sister to 2020 2-year-old champion Vequist, overwhelmed maidens at Monmouth Park. Ridden by Parx Hall of Famer Frankie Pennington and owned by breeder Tom McGrath’s Swilcan Stable and Glenn Bennett’s LC Racing, Mainstay was 7 3/4 lengths in front at the wire of the 4 1/2-furlong race and more than 20 lengths in front during the gallop out. Look for Mainstay in a Saratoga stake next.