Essential Quality probably tops in Triple Crown gray area

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Jockey Luis Saez reacts after crossing the finish line ahead of Hot Rod Charlie (4), with jockey Flavien Prat up, to win the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes horse race with Essential Quality (2),, Saturday, June 5, 2021, At Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK – Three Triple Crown races, three different winners and one isn't even decided yet.

More than five weeks since the Kentucky Derby and with the Belmont Stakes over, the Triple Crown season is still muddled in uncertainty. Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit could be disqualified from the Derby, making Belmont winner Essential Quality probably the best horse in what was a gray area of a Triple Crown season.

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“The body of work that this colt’s done and the (speed figure) numbers he’s had — it’s so consistent,” trainer Brad Cox said. “He’s never run a bad race. Obviously he’s the champion right now until he can be knocked down."

Three years since Justify — another Baffert horse who has been at the center of a failed drug test controversy — won the Triple Crown, the series has been out of sorts. In 2019 it was Maximum Security getting disqualified from the Derby for interference, in 2020 the Belmont ran first, Derby second and Preakness third because of the pandemic and now Kentucky officials are still deciding whether to DQ Medina Spirit and elevate Cox-trained Mandaloun to winner of the May 1 Derby.

That would make Cox 2 for 3. Perhaps the next super trainer, he said Saturday: “I’ve always dreamed of winning Derbys and winning Belmonts and Classic races. I’ve always wanted to be at the top and have top horses.”

He probably does. Even if the drug Medina Spirit tested positive for didn't enhance his performance — it's a therapeutic medication — the other 18 horses came back clean and there will forever be questions about how that race would've been run without that variable.

Essential Quality finished fourth in the Derby but mostly because of ground loss, and even rival trainers said last week that the gray colt's performance was probably the best they'd seen of anyone in that race. Winning the Belmont only strengthened the argument that Essential Quality is living up to the hype.

“In all fairness, he probably ran as good a race as he has run (in the Derby),” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin USA, which owns Essential Quality. “We all sometimes wish to work out a better trip, but it wasn’t meant to be and that’s horse racing. We were just looking for an opportunity to showcase his talent and his versatility, and I am very happy he got the job done for us.”

When Essential Quality didn't run in the Preakness, Rombauer blew past Medina Spirit and Midnight Bourbon down the stretch to pull off an upset and make the case for being one of the best 3-year-olds around.

“I don’t know if (maybe) he’s getting more in tune with how the game is played,” Rombauer trainer Michael McCarthy said. “He might be. With racing, all horses get a little bit more experience. He’s a smart horse. His best weapon is what’s in between his ears.”

Rombauer finished a distant third in the Belmont won by Essential Quality, but everyone — Cox included — was talking about Hot Rod Charlie's incredible performance to run second. Five weeks after finishing third in the Derby, jockey Flavien Prat didn't exactly have to urge Hot Rod Charlie to blaze a blistering pace, and Doug O'Neill's horse still had energy down the stretch.

“Our horse told us today that he’s a gamer,” O'Neill said after the Belmont. “He got pushed. He did all the dirty work. Essential Quality ran a huge race and I think Charlie showed he was trying every step of the way from gate to wire. He just couldn’t hold off a champ.”

But who is the champ? Maybe the Travers at Saratoga in upstate New York on Aug. 28 or Breeders' Cup Classic on O'Neill's home dirt at Del Mar in California on Nov. 6 will decide it. O'Neill certainly hopes Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality face off again and again and again.

“Those are two top horses, and hopefully they both stay injury-free and we get a good rivalry for a long time,” he said. “That would be really cool.”


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