Betting favorite Essential Quality wins 2021 Belmont Stakes

NEW YORK -- Brad Cox picked up his first Triple Crown win with Essential Quality's romp to victory in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday while waiting to see if he'll be awarded another from the Kentucky Derby.

Cox could be a Derby winner with Mandaloun if Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit is disqualified. But Cox was able to enjoy this one with Essential Quality beating Hot Rod Charlie by 1¼ lengths.

Essential Quality, who went off as the 6-5 favorite, passed early leader Hot Rod Charlie around the final turn and held on to win the $1 million race over 1½ miles. He paid $4.60 to win, $3 to place and $2.60 to show.

"That was a long way around there a mile a half, but it was exciting," Cox said. "It looked like the horse on the inside, he still had run left. I knew it was going to be a battle down the lane."

Preakness winner Rombauer was third and Known Agenda fourth.

Essential Quality, a striking gray colt, finished fourth as a beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby because of a rough trip. Essential Quality showed in the Belmont why he has long been considered one of the top 3-year-olds in the country.

"In the Kentucky Derby we were so confident that we're gonna win that race," said jockey Luis Saez, who won a Triple Crown race for the first time. "He was ready for the race. But we have a little unlucky start. ... Today, the main thing was try to break clean and the rest I know he's gonna do it."

Backdooring his way to becoming the first Louisville-born trainer to win the Kentucky Derby wouldn't allow Cox the same joy of victory as the Belmont, which the up-and-coming star will likely remember as his first true Triple Crown triumph.

And Cox saw this coming. He predicted last summer that Essential Quality would be his horse for the Belmont, and that proved true in beating a tough field of seven other horses.

It was something of redemption for Saez, who thought he had his first Triple Crown win finishing first in the 2019 Derby with Maximum Security. But Maximum Security was disqualified for impeding other horses.

There was no DQ this time.

"Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race and I thought [with] the hot pace we were in a good spot where they would come back," Cox said. "Luis did a fantastic job of getting him in position turning for home and he was able to really show his stamina late."

Saez said Belmont was his "second home."

"This was the race I wanted to win," he said.

United Arab Emirates ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum owns Essential Quality. Cox made it a point to mention him moments after the Belmont.

"Sheikh Mohammed, he's been supporting us the last two years and this is a tremendous organization, world-class organization, and we wouldn't be here obviously without this horse and his support, so I just wanted to really thank him," Cox said.

The race was run without a horse trained by Baffert, who was banned by the New York Racing Association after Medina Spirit failed a post-Derby drug test for the presence of a steroid. Churchill Downs suspended Baffert for two years after a second sample from the Derby came back positive for betamethasone, which is prohibited at any level on race day in Kentucky, Maryland and New York.

Normalcy returned to the Belmont after a topsy-turvy 2020 that featured the race leading off the Triple Crown at a nontraditional 1⅛-mile distance at an empty racetrack. The race was back in its traditional spot as the third leg of the Triple Crown five weeks after the Derby and three after the Preakness. And it was back to its "test of the champion" distance and had thousands of mostly maskless fans roaming the vast grandstand at Belmont Park.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.