June 5 (UPI) -- With no Triple Crown on the line, Saturday's $1.5 million Grade I Belmont Stakes was all about seeking the top 3-year-old from this year's contenders.
Essential Quality avenged his only career loss, a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, with a gutsy, stretch-running victory over Hot Rod Charlie in the 1 1/2-mile classic over the sweeping Belmont Park track.
His trainer quickly claimed leadership in the division for the colt who was 2-year-old champion and winner of the 2020 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
But the Belmont also turned up a budding rivalry between Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie that could play out through the remainder of the year in big races like the Travers and, eventually the Breeders' Cup Classic.
The two met for the first time in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last November. Essential Quality prevailed by just 3/4 length that day as one of the favorites, while Hot Rod Charlie just missed at odds of 94-1.
In the Kentucky Derby, Hot Rod Charlie got home third with Essential Quality fourth after early traffic problems in the big field.
Then came Saturday's showdown. The two locked up with a furlong to run in the Belmont, the gray Essential Quality on the outside and Hot Rod Charlie along he rail.
Inches apart and nose-to-nose, they ran together to the sixteenth pole before Hot Rod Charlie began to feel the effects of the extremely hot pace he helped set. Essential Quality finally edged clear.
Preakness winner Rombauer finished third, another 11 1/4 lengths back, emphasizing the dominance of the top two.
"Today, we made history," Essential Quality jockey Luis Saez said. "In the Kentucky Derby, we were so confident we were going to win the race. But we had an unlucky start. The main thing today was to get a clean break. The rest, I knew he was going to do it.
"I had a lot of horse and the good thing about Essential [Quality] is that he always fights," said Saez, who won his first Triple Crown race. "He doesn't care who it is, he's going to want to beat them. So I knew he was going to show up at the top of the stretch."
Winning trainer Brad Cox tipped his hat to the runner-up while saluting his colt.
"Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race to hang around that late after doing most of the dirty work," Cox said. "Our horse really showed his talent and stamina."
Asked if the win makes Essential Quality the nation's top 3-year-old, Cox replied without hesitation, "Right now, I think he is."
It seems likely the issue will be contested again as California-based trainer Doug O'Neill said he definitely will consider bringing Hot Rod Charlie back for the Grade I Travers at Saratoga.
"I can't wait to get back to the barn and give him a big hug," O'Neill said. "Just as long as he's doing well and is injury-free, and he's telling us through his training that he's doing well and is ready to go, he obviously loved to travel and we all love New York, so he's a possibility.
"There are many more chapters for this horse, hopefully."
Essential Quality, a Tapit colt, was bred by his owner, Godolphin, the racing entity of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. He was undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and won his first two races this year before finishing fourth in Louisville.
"We're so fortunate to have another opportunity," said Jimmy Bell, head of Godolphin's U.S. operations.
It was the second Classic win of the day for Godolphin, coming just hours after the global operation's long shot Adayar won the Group 1 Cazoo Derby on Epsom Downs in England by 4 1/2 lengths. Godolphin also finished third in that race with Hurricane Lane as all the favorites finished well up the course.
And, in the "when it rains, it pours" department, Godolphin runners also finished first and second in the Grade I Just A Game Stakes earlier on the Belmont program.
Things could have been even brighter for the "boys in blue" had Rebel's Romance, winner of the Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup night in Dubai, not been removed from Belmont consideration at the last moment with an infected leg.
The remainder of the order of finish in the Belmont was Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, Wood Memorial Winner Bourbonic, Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World, Overtook and the Japanese-trained France Go De Ina.
France Go De Ina helped Hot Rod Charlie establish the blistering early pace, but finished last, 70 lengths adrift of the winner.