by Jon White
June 9, 2021
In the “Test of the Champion,” the champion aced his test.
Essential Quality, the champion 2-year-old male of 2020, was asked to stretch out to 1 1/2 miles in last Saturday’s 153rd running of the Grade I, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes. The talented colt passed his test with flying colors, specifically the royal blue colors of owner-breeder Godolphin.
The only blemish on Essential Quality’s lifetime record is his loss when he was the victim of bad racing luck in the Grade I Kentucky Derby on May 1. If not for a bumpy start and wide trip, Essential Quality quite likely would have won the Run for the Roses and now would be seven for seven instead of six for seven.
According to Trakus, Essential Quality traveled 68 feet (approximately seven to eight lengths) farther in the Kentucky Derby than Medina Spirit, who finished first.
Did Essential Quality’s bad luck in Louisville deprive the sport of a Triple Crown winner? It’s far from a certainty, but I do believe it is a distinct possibility.
Let’s play the “what if” game. What if Essential Quality had won the Kentucky Derby? He almost certainly would have returned two weeks later in the Grade I Preakness Stakes.
What if Essential Quality had won in Baltimore? He then would have been going for a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont. And one thing we do know is the long distance of the Belmont isn’t something that would have tripped up Essential Quality in his quest for Triple Crown glory.
Rombauer won the Preakness. He did so with authority by 3 1/2 lengths.
But adding to the supposition that Essential Quality could have won the Preakness if he had been in it is the fact he has trounced Rombauer all three times they have met.
Essential Quality defeated Rombauer by 6 1/4 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, by 5 3/4 lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes, then by 12 1/2 lengths in the Belmont.
But despite Essential Quality’s dominance in his three encounters with Rombauer, one can’t automatically assume Essential Quality would have won the Preakness.
It’s possible that a fresher Rombauer might have defeated Essential Quality in the Preakness due in large part to Essential Quality having only two weeks between starts.
It’s also not out of the question that if Essential Quality had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, perhaps he then would not have run as well as he did in the Belmont because of the difficult task of starting in all three Triple Crown events within the span of five weeks (something no horse did this year for the first time since 2010).
Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that if racing luck had been a bit kinder to Essential Quality on the first Saturday in May, this country’s 14th Triple Crown winner might be being celebrated following the Belmont. But, of course, we will never know.
HUGE EFFORT BY THE RUNNER-UP
Hot Rod Charlie, who had to settle for second, ran too good to lose, as they say.
In a noteworthy aspect regarding this year’s Belmont Stakes, Hot Rod Charlie scooted to the front at once and zipped the opening quarter-mile in :22.78 or :22 3/5 in fifths.
That’s the fastest opening quarter in the history of the Belmont, which was first run in 1867 (making it the oldest of the three Triple Crown races).
What about Secretariat? When he won the 1973 Belmont by an enormous margin, he ran the first quarter in :23 4/5. But that was not the fastest initial quarter before Hot Rod Charlie.
In 1945, The Doge set the record for the fastest opening quarter in the history of the Belmont when he was clocked in :22 4/5.
In the 2014 book “The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes: A Complete History,” Richard Sowers wrote this concerning the early part of the 1945 Belmont: “When the gate opened, Edward R. Bradley’s Burning Dream stumbled to his knees and fell far off the pace, while The Doge exploded like he had been shot out of a cannon. The Doge, an 11-1 shot ridden by John Gilbert, ran the first quarter in :22 4/5 -- which remains the fastest in a 1 1/2-mile Belmont -- a half-mile in :47, and led by 1 1/2 lengths after a mile [timed in 1:38 1/5]. At that point, The Doge was finished.”
The Doge paid the price for running so swiftly early. He ran out of gas and finished seventh in the field of eight. The Doge ended up a little more than 24 lengths behind Pavot, who won by five lengths with the legendary Eddie Arcaro in the irons.
There have been 95 editions of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles. Hot Rod Charlie covered the opening half-mile in :46.49 or :46 2/5 in fifths. The only horse to post a faster time for the first half-mile was Secretariat, who was clocked in :46 1/5.
Below are the horses responsible for the only :46 and change fractional times in the history of the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles:
Year Time Horse, Finished (Winner if Different)
1973 :46 1/5 Secretariat, finished 1st
2021 :46 2/5 Hot Rod Charlie, finished 2nd (Essential Quality)
2013 :46 3/5 Frac Daddy, finished last in field of 14 (Palace Malice)
1991 :46 3/5 Corporate Report, finished 4th (Hansel)
1966 :46 3/5 Highest Honors, finished last in field of 13 (Amberoid)
1959 :46 3/5 Manassa Mauler, finished 4th (Sword Dancer)
1996 :46 4/5 Appealing Skier, finished 12th (Editor’s Note)
1957 :46 4/5 Bold Ruler, finished 3rd (Gallant Man)
Secretariat, believed by many to be the greatest racehorse of all time, is the only horse to ever run the first half in :46 and change and win.
But the above chart also points out just how marvelously Hot Rod Charlie ran in defeat. Despite recording the second-fastest half-mile time in the history of the race when contested at 1 1/2 miles, he held on well enough to finish second, leaving the other six Belmont starters way behind.
Hot Rod Charlie finished 11 1/4 lengths in front of Rombauer, who wound up a distant third in the field of eight.
DECISION BY PRAT AND AGENT VINDICATED
Flavien Prat rode Hot Rod Charlie when he finished a close third in the Kentucky Derby. Two days after that race, Prat and his agent, Brad Pegram, gave a commitment to trainer Doug O’Neill that Prat would ride Hot Ride Charlie in the Preakness. Prat and Pegram honored that commitment even after Prat then won the Preakness aboard Rombauer. That opened the door for John Velazquez to ride Rombauer in the Belmont.
Hot Rod Charlie’s stellar effort in defeat in the Belmont would seem to indicate that Prat and his agent knew what they were doing.
COMING HOME FASTER THAN SECRETARIAT
Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie both ran a faster final quarter than Secretariat when he won the 1973 Belmont to end a 25-year Triple Crown drought. Secretariat traveled the final quarter in :25 flat.
The following splits all belonged to Secretariat when he won the Belmont by 31 spectacular lengths:
:23 3/5, :22 3/5, :23 3/5, :24 2/5, :24 4/5, 25 flat
These were the splits in this year’s Belmont:
:22 3/5, :23 3/5, :25 2/5, :25 1/5, :24 4/5, :24 3/5
Essential Quality, only a head off the leading Hot Rod Charlie at the quarter pole, is the one who ran the final quarter in :24 3/5. All the other splits belonged to Hot Rod Charlie.
Hot Rod Charlie lost by 1 1/4 lengths. Tacking on one-fifth of a second because he lost by that much means that Hot Rod Charlie ran the final quarter in :24 4/5.
When American Pharoah won the 2015 Belmont to end a 37-year Triple Crown drought, he also ran the final quarter faster than Secretariat in his Belmont. American Pharoah was timed running his final quarter in a sensational :24 1/5. The following splits in the 2015 Belmont all belonged to American Pharoah:
:24 flat, :24 3/5, :24 2/5, :24 2/5, :24 1/5, :24 1/5
When Justify won the 2018 Belmont to complete a Triple Crown sweep in the final start of his career, the following splits all belonged to him:
:23 1/5, :24 3/5, :25 flat, :24 4/5, :24 4/5, :25 1/5
WHO RAN THE BETTER RACE?
There has been a spirited debate as to whether Essential Quality or Hot Rod Charlie ran the better race in the Belmont.
Those who say it was Essential Quality point to the fact that, after all, he won. Does that not prove he ran the better race? He didn’t win in a photo finish, either.
Those who say it was Hot Rod Charlie make the case that by going so fast early and still finishing second, he ran a better race than the winner.
I believe both performances should be applauded.
For me, this brings to mind the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup when a lot of people thought the runner-up ran a better race than the winner. In a thrilling stretch battle for the ages, Exceller won that race by a scant nose. But many felt runner-up Seattle Slew ran even better than Exceller to lose a 1 1/2-mile race by the slimmest of margins despite going the first six furlongs in a rapid 1:09 2/5.
Years after that race, I was chatting with Exceller’s trainer, Charlie Whittingham, one morning at Santa Anita. The 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup happened to come up during the course of our conversation. Let me tell you, I found out first-hand how irked Whittingham still was that Exceller did not seem to get the credit he deserved.
“You know, Exceller WON that race,” Whittingham growled. “People seem to forget that.”
A BUDDING RIVALRY?
Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie now have met three times at three different tracks and at three different distances.
In the 1 1/16-mile Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last Nov. 6, Essential Quality was victorious by three-quarters of a length at odds of 7-2. Hot Rod Charlie ran second at 94-1.
In the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, Hot Rod Charlie was sent off at 5-1 and edged 5-2 favorite Essential Quality by a head for third.
Last Saturday’s Belmont was their rubber match.
The hope here is we will be seeing more battles between these two.
One of Essential Quality’s many, yes, qualities, is he has demonstrated that he can win in so many different ways.
When the pace has been slow or moderate, Essential Quality has won after racing forwardly early.
When the pace has been fast, as it was in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Belmont Stakes, Essential Quality has produced the necessary rally to win after being many lengths off the early lead.
In the Belmont, Essential Quality raced fifth early, six to seven lengths off the fast pace. Hot Rod Charlie was really motoring through the early furlongs when setting the pace while being hounded by Rock Your World.
Essential Quality rallied to take on Hot Rod Charlie on the far turn. Turning for home, Rock Your World capitulated, leaving Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie to duke it out the rest of the way.
From the top of the lane to the sixteenth pole, Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie slugged it out. And then, in the final sixteenth, Essential Quality flexed his muscles to prevail by a bit more than a length.
Essential Quality’s versatility in terms of the range of distances at which he has succeeded is further proof that he is a special colt. He has won from six furlongs to 12 furlongs.
Secretariat and Seattle Slew likewise won at distances ranging from six furlongs to 12 furlongs.
Affirmed, who swept the Triple Crown in 1978, won from 5 1/2 furlongs to 12 furlongs, as did the phenomenal filly Ruffian.
The two most recent Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify, both won from seven furlongs to 12 furlongs.
BIG BEYER FIGURE FOR WINNER AND RUNNER-UP
Watching Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie finish so far in front of the others gave the visual impression that the winner and runner-up both ran huge. That they did just that is quantified by the Beyer Speed Figures.
Essential Quality was credited with a 109 Beyer. Hot Rod Charlie recorded a 108. Rombauer received a 95.
To put Essential Quality’s 109 Beyer into historical context, it’s the highest figure by a Belmont winner since Empire Maker in 2003.
Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie both recorded a higher Beyer in the Belmont than Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify when they were victorious in the 1 1/2-mile marathon.
American Pharoah’s Beyer when he won the Belmont was a 105. When Justify won the race, his Beyer was a 101.
In fact, Essential Quality’s 109 and Hot Rod Charlie’s 108 are higher Beyers than the figures recorded by American Pharoah and Justify in any of their Triple Crown races.
In an interview Monday on Steve Byk’s SiriusXM radio program “At the Races,” Andy Beyer said that when discussing the 109 Belmont figure for Essential Quality with associate Mark Hopkins, the only real debate was whether the figure could be higher than 109 rather than lower.
Beyer explained that the reason for the figure possibly deserving to be higher than 109 is the previous dirt race on the card was the Met Mile, “which came up quite slow,” he said. Silver State, who won the Met Mile in 1:35.45, received a 100 Beyer Speed Figure.
Beyer said that if they had gone with a 113 for Essential Quality, then “not-so-great horses” like Known Agenda, who finished fourth, and Bourbonic, who ran fifth, would be “these not-so-great horses going backward at the end, but still running their career bests. When we’re making figures, we want to make a number that really makes sense for most of the horses in the field. So we couldn’t be too generous to the likes of Bourbonic. But the 109, I think, really caught what these horses are.”
Essential Quality’s final time in the Belmont was 2:27.11. It was the fifth-fastest Belmont in the last three decades.
The five fastest Belmonts in the last 30 years are listed below:
Time Winner (Year)
2:26.13 A.P. Indy (1992)
2:26.56 Point Given (2001)
2:26.65 American Pharoah (2015)
2:26.82 Tabasco Cat (1994)
2:27.11 Essential Quality (2021)
When the 6-year-old gelding Lone Rock won last Saturday’s Grade II Brooklyn Stakes in isolated splendor by 11 1/4 lengths, he completed 1 1/2 miles on “big sandy” in 2:28.97. Lone Rock registered a 100 Beyer Speed Figure.
The American Racing Manual, now digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website, lists Beyer Speed Figures for Belmont winners going as far back as 1990.
Point Given won the 2001 Belmont by 12 1/4 lengths. His 114 Beyer for that race has the distinction of being the highest figure for the Belmont.
The Beyers of 107 or higher for Belmont winners are listed below:
BSF Belmont Winner (Year)
114 Point Given (2001)
111 A.P. Indy (1992)
111 Hansel (1991)
111 Go and Go (1990)
110 Empire Maker
110 Victory Gallop (1998)
110 Touch Gold (1997)
109 Essential Quality (2021)
109 Lemon Drop Kid (1999)
107 Rags to Riches (2007)
These are the Beyers for winners of the Belmont going back to 1990:
2021 Essential Quality (109)
2020 Tiz the Law (100)*
2019 Sir Winston (95)
2018 Justify (101)
2017 Tapwrit (103)
2016 Creator (99)
2015 American Pharoah (105)
2014 Tonalist (100)
2013 Palace Malice (98)
2012 Union Rags (96)
2011 Ruler On Ice (100)
2010 Drosselmeyer (94)
2009 Summer Bird (100)
2008 Da’ Tara (99)
2007 Rags to Riches (107)
2006 Jazil (102)
2005 Afleet Alex (106)
2004 Birdstone (101)
2003 Empire Maker (110)
2002 Sarava (105)
2001 Point Given (114)
2000 Commendable (101)
1999 Lemon Drop Kid (109)
1998 Victory Gallop (110)
1997 Touch Gold (110)
1996 Editor’s Note (106)
1995 Thunder Gulch (101)
1994 Tabasco Cat (106)
1993 Colonial Affair (104)
1992 A.P. Indy (111)
1991 Hansel (111)
1990 Go and Go (111)
*Run at 1 1/8 miles
As I noted last week, Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont predates Beyer Speed Figures. Andy Beyer once wrote that he retroactively calculated what Secretariat’s Beyer Speed Figure would have been for the Belmont. It would have been a 139.
COX TURNED OUT TO BE PROPHETIC
When Essential Quality stepped three furlongs in :35.60 at Keeneland last year on June 16 in his first workout for Brad Cox, the trainer recalls telling his assistant that this “is a Belmont horse,” or words to that effect.
Nearly a year later, Essential Quality won the Belmont to provide his 41-year-old trainer with his first victory in a Triple Crown event.
In addition to Essential Quality finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby for Cox, Mandaloun ran second in that race for the Eclipse Award-winning trainer of 2020. Medina Spirit finished first in the Derby, but the possibility remains that he might be disqualified because his post-race test and split sample reportedly showed the presence of the therapeutic medication betamethasone. If Medina Spirit is disqualified, Cox then would become the winning trainer of this year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont with two different horses. Cox would be the first Louisville native to win the Kentucky Derby.
Contributing to Essential Quality’s victory in the Belmont was a splendid ride on the part of 29-year-old Luis Saez. As with Cox, this was Saez’s first win in a Triple Crown race.
Saez finished first aboard Maximum Security in the 2019 Kentucky Derby. But the stewards disqualified Maximum Security and placed him 17th for committing a foul when he veered out sharply nearing the five-sixteenths marker to cause interference to War of Will, Bodexpress and Long Range Toddy.
TAPIT TIES LONGSTANDING SIRE RECORD
Essential Quality is a son of Tapit and the Elusive Quality mare Delightful Quality. Cox has said many times that Essential Quality’s sire is something he had going for him in the Belmont.
“With the Tapit on top, we really thought he would get the mile and a half when given the opportunity,” Cox told NYRA communications after the race.
Also after the race, Cox complimented Hot Rod Charlie.
“Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race to hang around that late after doing most of the dirty work,” Cox said, adding that “our horse really showed his talent and stamina.”
Tapit now has sired four winners of the Belmont: Tonalist in 2014, Creator in 2016, Tapwrit in 2017 and Essential Quality in 2021.
Additionally, Tapit is the sire of two Belmont Stakes runners-up in Frosted and Tacitus. Frosted finished second when American Pharoah won the 2015 Belmont. Tacitus ran second to Sir Winston in the 2109 Belmont.
Two sons of Tapit have finished third in the Belmont, Lani in 2016 and Hofburg in 2018.
Tiz the Law won the last year’s 1 1/8-mile Belmont. Tiz the Law is by Constitution, a son of Tapit.
Tapit now is tied with Lexington for siring the most winners of the Belmont. Lexington’s four winners of this race were General Duke in 1868, Kingfisher in 1870, Harry Bassett in 1871 and Duke of Magenta in 1878.
GIGANTIC DAY FOR GODOLPHIN
In an extraordinary achievement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s powerful Godolphin racing operation won the Belmont and the historic Group I Epsom Derby with Adayar on the same day.
Also last Saturday, Godolphin’s Althiqa and Summer Romance ran one-two in the Grade I Just a Game Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard.
Charlie Appleby trains Adayar, Althiqa and Summer Romance. Appleby had planned to run UAE Derby winner Rebel’s Romance in the Belmont for Godolphin. But Rebel’s Romance was forced to miss the Belmont due to a hind leg infection.
Godolphin also should be congratulated for having bred Essential Quality, Adayar, Althiqa and Rebel’s Romance.
By the way, am I the only one that each time I come across the name Adayar, I can’t help seeing it at first as Alydar?
JIM DANDY AND/OR TRAVERS NEXT
The next major goal for Essential Quality, according to Cox, is the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 28. A possible start before that is the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes at that venerable race course on July 31.
Of course, the biggest remaining 2021 objective for Essential Quality is the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 6.
CURRENT LEADER FOR ECLIPSE AWARD
Essential Quality, at this time, is the clear-cut leader in the race for the 2021 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
If Essential Quality does receive that Eclipse Award, he will become a rare champion as a 2-year-old and 3-year-old. How rare? Since Spectacular Bid (1979 and 1980), the only others to accomplished this particular double have been Lookin At Lucky (2009 and 2010) and American Pharoah (2014 and 2015).
THIS WEEK’S NTRA POLLS
Silver State and Essential Quality are newcomers in the Top 10 of the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll this week. This poll concludes on Nov. 8 (after the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar on Nov. 5 and 6).
Silver State, who extended his winning streak to six by taking the Met Mile. rocketed all the way up to No. 2 after being No. 13 last week.
Essential Quality debuts this week on the Top Thoroughbred Poll at No. 9.
Colonel Liam and Shedaresthedevil exit the Top 10 this week after loses last Saturday at Belmont Park. Colonel Liam finished eighth in the Grade I Manhattan Stakes (won by Domestic Spending). Shedaresthedevil ran third in the Grade I Ogden Phipps Stakes (won by Letruska).
The Top 10 in this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 337 Mystic Guide (27)
2. 242 Silver State (1)
3. 240 Letruska
4. 234 Domestic Spending (6)
5. 161 Charlatan
6. 134 Maxfield (1)
7. 131 Monomoy Girl
8. 121 Gamine (1)
9. 118 Essential Quality (1)
10. 49 Knicks Go
Essential Quality received all 37 first-place votes in final NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll of 2021.
Search Results and Drain the Clock, who won Grade I races at Belmont Park last Saturday, are newcomers on this week’s Top 10. Search Results was victorious in the Grade I Acorn Stakes. Drain the Clock took the Grade I Woody Stephens Stakes.
The undefeated Life Is Good moved back into the Top 10 this week. He ranked No. 11 last week.
Jackie’s Warrior was No. 8, Rock Your World was No. 9 and Known Agenda was No. 10 last week. They all drop out of the Top 10 this week. Jackie’s Warrior ran second in the Woody Stephens. Known Agenda and Rock Your World finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in the Belmont.
The Top 10 in the final NTRA Top Three-Year-Old Poll of 2021:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 370 Essential Quality (37)
2. 298 Hot Rod Charlie
3. 282 Rombauer
4. 227 Mandaloun
5. 177 Malathaat
6. 164 Medina Spirit
7. 147 Midnight Bourbon
8. 74 Search Results
9. 66 Drain the Clock
10. 48 Life Is Good