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OPINION | WALLY HALL: Belmont duel restores some luster to Crown

by Wally Hall | June 6, 2021 at 2:38 a.m.

A great stretch battle between two of the better 3-year-old colts brought the Triple Crown to an end with a tremble.

No rumble.

No grumble.

Just a soft grin.

The Belmont Stakes was won by Essential Quality, who won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in February before heading to Kentucky.

After winning the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland in April, he was made the Kentucky Derby favorite at nearly 3-1.

On Derby Day, it was more like a demolition derby at the start for Essential Quality. He was bumped and squeezed between horses and ended up wide -- very wide -- on the turn for home and finished fourth to Medina Spirit.

Medina Spirit failed a drug test after the Derby, which was a kick in the gut to the world of thoroughbred racing.

Brad Cox, the trainer of Essential Quality, knew the Derby had been lost at the start because his mount was just 1 length behind Medina Spirit at the end.

Cox, with the blessing of owners Godolphin stables, opted to sit out the Preakness that was won by Rombauer, who rallied to finish third on Saturday.

Cox, who is a successful trainer and travels the country with his horses looking for the best races, had never won a Triple Crown race.

He was the biggest story going into the Kentucky Derby. He is a native of Louisville, and no one from that city had ever won the Derby. Still hasn't, but that might change if Medina Spirit is disqualified after his second positive drug test. Cox trained Mandaloun, who finished second and would be declared the winner. .

Cox's first job at Churchill, which was only two blocks from his home, was as a hot walker. He was 13 and would finish his job and rush to junior high.

With only eight horses in the Belmont field, Essential Quality got a clean break. As was his style while winning his first five races, he laid back.

Hot Rod Charlie, France Go de Ina and Rock Your World vied for the lead in the first 100 yards. With a rail advantage, Hot Rod Charlie -- winner of the Louisiana Derby and third in the Kentucky Derby by a length -- put a nose ahead of the pack and settled in as the pace-setter.

And he was a fast one. NBC clocked Hot Rod Charlie at 38 mph at one point.

After 6 furlongs, Rock Your World made a move. Just behind him, Essential Quality jockey Luis Saez had sized up the action like he was Tom Brady on a last-minute drive. He urged his horse to take up the challenge.

France Go de Ina, in only his second U.S. race, already had hit the wall and would fade to last.

When Saez drew even with Rock Your World, it was all that horse needed to know to convince him he wasn't winning on the first Saturday in June. He faded to sixth.

Essential Quality drew even with Hot Rod Charlie in the stretch, and with each stride the son of Tapit inched ahead.

Tapit offspring win this race almost too often. They have proven to have the bloodline to master 1 1/2 miles.

Essential Quality bested Hot Rod Charlie, who is owned by a group of guys who were buddies in college and pooled their money together to buy him for $11o,000. He already had won more than $1 million going into the Belmont.

Hot Rod Charlie -- whose early fractions may have cost him in the end -- lost, but quitting was never on his mind.

Saturday's Belmont was exactly what the world of horse racing needed -- two of the better 3-year-olds going nose to nose in an exciting finish.

Now thoroughbred racing can continue to move on from the black eye it received after the Kentucky Derby.

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