Essential Quality duplicated the favorite status he enjoyed for the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago, taking 2/1 morning-line favorite odds into Saturday’s 153rd Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
Tuesday morning’s Belmont Stakes draw put the Brad Cox-trained, Tapit progeny in post 2. He’s one of four Grade 1 winners and five Derby returners in the eight-horse field. Essential Quality is coming out of his fourth-place finish in the May 1 Derby, where he finished a length behind winner Medina Spirit. After opening as the 2/1 morning-line favorite, he left the Churchill Downs gate as the 5/2 favorite.
“He ran what I thought was a winning race in the Derby; he didn’t have the trip, but he showed up and he’s been improving in every start,” Cox told the New York Racing Association. “I’m confident that he can handle the mile and a half. Just based off his works and his races, he’s very steady and doesn’t seem to get tired. He has a tremendous amount of stamina that I think he was just blessed with based on his pedigree.”
Tapit’s offspring have claimed three Belmont Stakes titles since 2014. Should Essential Quality make it four, Tapit will claim the record for siring the most Belmont winners in the 153-year history of the 1 ½-mile “Test of the Champion.”
Preakness winner Rombauer your second choice
Next door to Essential Quality is the second of the four Grade 1 winners, Rombauer. He’ll start in post 3 as the 3/1 second favorite after winning the May 15 Preakness Stakes. The colt won that Preakness at 11/1, giving him victories over three surfaces: dirt, synthetic, and turf.
John Velazquez, who rode Medina Spirit to a Derby win and a Preakness third-place finish, takes over for Flavien Prat. The California-based Prat returns to Hot Rod Charlie, who he rode in the Derby. For Rombauer trainer Mike McCarthy, who served as New York-based Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher’s assistant before going on his own, it wasn’t a difficult call.
“He’s had several different riders and it’s not something that’s bothered me,” McCarthy told the NYRA. “It would have been nice to have Flavien back, but I feel we have a wonderful substitute. This has been Johnny’s home track for 25-plus years and he’s very familiar with this race and the way it plays out. I’m very happy with where I’m at.”
Velazquez owns two Belmont Stakes titles to go with the familiarity of Belmont Park, where he spent large chunks of his Hall-of-Fame career.
Belmont provides a rubber match here
Speaking of Hot Rod Charlie, the Derby’s third-place horse, he’ll leave from post 4. Morning-line author David Aragona put 7/2 third-favorite odds on the Louisiana Derby winner. He and Essential Quality will tangle for the third time, with each owning a victory over the other. Essential Quality beat Hot Rod Charlie in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; Hot Rod Charlie nipped Essential Quality for third at the Derby.
Both horses have improved their Beyer Speed Figures in each successive race.
“I credit his improvement this year with the owners’ patience,” trainer Doug O’Neill told the NYRA. “There’s been a lot of time given to him between races. I’m super excited having Flavien back on him. He knows ‘Charlie’ really well and their connection is strong.”
Can Rock Your World rock the Belmont?
Hot Rod Charlie doesn’t have a Grade 1 victory on his resume yet, but his fellow California denizen, Rock Your World, does. That came in April’s Santa Anita Derby and vaulted him into the Kentucky Derby as the second-favorite where he endured a miserable start and never fired, finishing 17th of 19.
Rock Your World’s redemption tour resumes Saturday from post 7 at 9/2. He’ll have two-time Belmont winner Joel Rosario aboard.
The fourth Grade 1 winner in the field, Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, also returns from Derby miseries. He finished a non-factor ninth after not handling the rail traffic. On Saturday, he’ll leave from a more accommodating post 6. He’s 6/1 on the morning-line, the favorite of the three Todd Pletcher entries.
Grade 1 153rd Belmont Stakes/Belmont Park
Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)
- Bourbonic, 15/1 (Kendrick Carmouche/Todd Pletcher)
- Essential Quality, 2/1 (Luis Saez/Brad Cox)
- Rombauer, 3/1 (John Velazquez/Michael McCarthy)
- Hot Rod Charlie, 7/2 (Flavien Prat/Doug O’Neill)
- France Go de Ina, 30/1 (Ricardo Santana Jr./Hideyuki Mori)
- Known Agenda, 6/1 (Irad Ortiz Jr./Todd Pletcher)
- Rock Your World, 9/2 (Joel Rosario/John Sadler)
- Overtook, 20/1 (Manny Franco, Todd Pletcher)
Pletcher, who also saddles Wood Memorial winner and 13th-place Derby finisher Bourbonic (post 1,15/1) and Triple Crown newcomer Overtook (post 8, 20/1), is seeking his fourth Belmont Stakes victory. He last won with Tapwrit in 2017.
The Belmont Stakes is one of 13 races on Belmont Park’s Saturday card. It’s also one of nine graded stakes and eight Grade 1 events on what is one of American racing’s biggest days of the year.