The Belmont Stakes gives Essential Quality a chance to bounce back from his third-place Kentucky Derby finish and make a run for year-end champion honors. File Photo by John Sommers II/UPI | License Photo
June 5 (UPI) -- The $1.5 million Grade I Belmont Stakes won't crown a Triple Crown champion, but it could well produce a lot of year-end honors and trophy hardware for the winner.
That would be all the more likely if Essential Quality emerges as the winner Saturday of the 1 1/2-mile tour around the huge Belmont Park track. The gray Tapit colt won his five starts, including the 2020 Breeder's Cup Juvenile and was named top U.S. male 2-year-old.
He suffered his first loss in the Kentucky Derby, finishing fourth but beaten just 1 length for it all. A return to the win column in the Belmont would put him firmly in charge of the 3-year-old division with the Breeders' Cup Classic in November at Del Mar looming as a year-end target.
Trainer Brad Cox decided right after the win streak was snapped in Louisville that Essential Quality wouldn't contest the Preakness Stakes two weeks later at Pimlico.
And when Derby winner Medina Spirit finished third there, eliminating a Triple Crown sweep this year, Essential Quality was left in prime position.
Cox on Friday had Essential Quality on the Belmont training track, which was drying out from mid-week rains.
"The surface on the training track seemed to be a little better. He handled it really well. We're really happy with where we are," Cox said.
Medina Spirit, whose Derby victory is in jeopardy because of a positive drug test, is not running in the Belmont. In fact, only five of the 19 Derby contenders will face the Belmont starter.
They include Hot Rod Charlie, third at Churchill Downs, and Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World, who was well-bet in the Derby but essentially eliminated when squeezed back at the start.
Also in the field is Rombauer, who won the Preakness at odds of nearly 12-1.
"All good. No complaints," Rombauer's trainer, Michael McCarthy said Friday, celebrating the Preakness victory for the colt's owners, John and Diane Fradkin, relatively minor players at the top level of the sport.
"There's a lot of people aspiring to do the same thing the Fradkins are doing," McCarthy said. "It gives people a ray of hope that they can do it as well."
There is a spot of international intrigue in the Belmont field, even though Group 2 UAE Derby winner Rebel's Romance was forced out with an infected leg. That defection left France Go De Ina, a Kentucky-bred, Japanese-trained colt, to carry the international standard.
France Go De Ina was sixth in the UAE Derby in Dubai and seventh in the Preakness, but Kate Hunter, who translates for the Japanese connections, said the colt seems ready to go now.
"He came out of his breeze on Wednesday really well and in his gallop today, he really seemed like he was ready to run. He seems to be in a really good place for the race tomorrow," Hunter said.
Rock Your World has as much to prove as any of those in the Belmont. Trainer John Sadler brought the son of Candy Ride along slowly, putting him on the turf for his first two starts, both wins. He then proved his mettle on the dirt in the Santa Anita Derby but never had a chance to run in Louisville.
Sadler said preparations at Belmont Park have gone well and added, "This is a great race with a lot of good horses. We like our horse."
Essential Quality is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line, followed by Rombauer at 3-1, Hot Rod Charlie at 7-2 and Rock Your World at 9-2.
Completing the field are Wood Memorial winner Bourbonic, who finished 13th in the Kentucky Derby; Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, who was ninth at Churchill Downs; and Overtook, who has only a maiden win to his credit.
Luis Saez celebrates atop Essential Quality after winning the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes on June 5, 2021, at Belmont Park in New York. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo