This Saturday’s 153nd running of the Belmont Stakes is back to its traditional spot on the calendar and its traditional 1 1/2-mile distance.
Last year’s Belmont originally was scheduled to be run on June 6. However, as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the race was shifted to June 20 and contested at 1 1/8 miles.
A 1 1/8-mile Belmont Stakes seemed just plain weird to me. But then, due to the pandemic, much of what happened throughout the entire world in 2020 was abnormal.
The 2020 Kentucky Derby was run on the first Saturday in September instead of the first Saturday in May. Last year’s Preakness Stakes was run on the first Saturday in October instead of the third Saturday in May.
Last year was the first (and hopefully only) time in the long history of the Triple Crown that the Belmont was run before both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
This year’s Grade I, $1.5 million Belmont has attracted a field of eight. There was a defection just prior to Tuesday’s draw for post positions. UAE Derby winner Rebel’s Romance was not entered due to a hind leg infection, according to trainer Charlie Appleby.
My selections for the Belmont are below:
1. Essential Quality (2-1 morning-line favorite)
2. Rock Your World (9-2)
3. Hot Rod Charlie (7-2)
4. Rombauer (3-1)
Brad Cox trains Essential Quality. Cox praised Medina Spirit for winning the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby in front-running fashion by a half-length at odds of 12-1. Essential Quality, sent away as the 5-2 favorite, finished fourth, one length behind Medina Spirit.
Cox said it was a “huge, huge performance” on the part of Medina Spirit. “He did all the dirty work [early] and kept on rolling.”
But when Cox was asked if he believed that Essential Quality might have been the best horse in the race because of his wide trip, the trainer was quick to respond.
“I do,” Cox said. “I think he was the best horse. People can say what they want, but he was beaten a length and ran 68 feet further than the winner [according to Trakus].”
There are those who say Essential Quality, who ranged up to loom boldly approaching the top of the long Churchill stretch, had every chance to run down Medina Spirit in the lane. And that is true. Nevertheless, it is awfully difficult for a horse to run 68 feet (approximately seven to eight lengths) farther than someone and still beat them.
“I’m guessing that Essential Quality will be the Kentucky Derby starter who quite possibly will emerge from the race with the best Thoro-Graph number,” I wrote following the Run for the Roses. “When it comes to Thoro-Graph, a lower number is better than a higher one. This is the opposite of Beyer Speed Figures.
“Thoro-Graph takes many more factors into account than the Beyers. According to Thoro-Graph, ‘each number on a sheet represents a performance rating arrived at by using time of the race, beaten lengths, ground lost or saved on the turns, weight carried, and any effects wind conditions had on the time of the race.’ ”
It turned out I was right. Essential Quality’s Thoro-Graph number for the Kentucky Derby was the best of anyone in the race.
In fact, Medina Spirit came away with just the fourth-best Thoro-Graph number of the Kentucky Derby starters. That was a major reason I was willing to take a stand against Medina Spirit in the Preakness, even though his trainer, Bob Baffert, previously had been five-for-five when running a Kentucky Derby winner back in a Preakness held in May.
Below are the Thoro-Graph numbers for the first four finishers in the Kentucky Derby:
Finish Horse (Thoro-Graph Number)
4. Essential Quality (negative 1/4)
3. Hot Rod Charlie (1/2)
2. Mandaloun (1 1/4)
1. Medina Spirit (1 1/2)
After Medina Spirit, there was a gap to the next-best Thoro-Graph number, a 3, which was posted by O Besos, who finished fifth.
THE POWER OF TAPIT
Essential Quality’s first workout for Cox was three furlongs in :35.60 at Keeneland last year on June 16. After the workout, Cox recalls telling his assistant that Essential Quality “is a Belmont horse,” or words to that effect.
Almost a year later, Essential Quality gets the chance to prove whether his trainer was prophetic.
Essential Quality’s sire is Tapit. Cox often has alluded to his belief that the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont will suit Essential Quality because of his sire.
Tapit has sired three winners of the Belmont: Tonalist in 2014, Creator in 2016 and Tapwrit in 2017.
Additionally, Tapit is the sire of two Belmont Stakes runners-up in Frosted and Tacitus. Frosted finished second when American Pharoah won the 2015 Belmont to complete a rare Triple Crown sweep. Tacitus ran second to Sir Winston in the 2109 Belmont.
Two sons of Tapit have finished third in the Belmont, Lani in 2016 and Hofburg in 2018.
Tiz the Law won the last year’s 1 1/8-mile Belmont. Tiz the Law is by Constitution, a son of Tapit.
If Essential Quality gets the job done Saturday, Tapit will tie Lexington in terms of the record for siring the most winners of the Belmont. Lexington’s four Belmont winners were General Duke in 1868, Kingfisher in 1870, Harry Bassett in 1871 and Duke of Magenta in 1878.
THUMBS UP FOR RECENT DRILLS
The Belmont is known as “The Test of the Champion.” That’s literally the case this year in that Essential Quality, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male champion of 2020, will be tested Saturday at the demanding distance of 1 1/2 miles.
Cox has expressed his delight with how Essential Quality has trained leading up to Saturday’s race. The Kentucky-bred colt worked five furlongs in :59.80 at Churchill Downs on May 22.
On May 27, Cox said: “Moving forward off the [Kentucky] Derby, his weight’s great, his energy level’s great. We’re happy with everything we’ve seen post-Derby.”
Two days later, Essential Quality stepped five furlongs in a bullet :59.40 at Churchill.
Those sharp workouts suggest it’s all systems go for Essential Quality.
ROCK YOUR WORLD MERITS MUCH RESPECT
It was very tempting to make Rock Your World my top pick.
Rock Your World was three for three going into the Kentucky Derby. He was the 9-2 second favorite in the wagering. But you can take a pen and draw a line right through his Kentucky Derby. His race that day was essentially over about as fast as you can say his name.
Off a step slowly and mugged in the opening strides, Rock Your World found himself much farther behind early than ever before. Never in contention, he finished 17th in the field of 19.
Prior to the Kentucky Derby, Rock Your World showed early speed when he won the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby on April 3 in his dirt debut after winning twice on turf. The Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt trounced his eight foes that day, drawing away in the stretch to prevail by 4 1/4 lengths.
It looks like Rock Your World has an excellent chance to get the early lead Saturday. It also appears that he might be allowed to set an uncontested pace without having to expend much energy to do so.
Remember what happened in the 2020 Kentucky Derby and 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic when Authentic was permitted to go along in a comfortable manner while setting the pace? Authentic won both races. Remember what happened in this year’s Kentucky Derby when Medina Spirit was allowed to go along in comfortable fashion while showing the way early? It resulted in a Medina Spirit victory. What if Rock Your World is left alone in the early furlongs of the Belmont like Authentic in the 2020 Kentucky Derby and 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic and Medina Spirit in this year’s Kentucky Derby?
Yes, it’s a rather tall order for Rock Your World to go 1 1/2 miles with only four races under his belt. But the gusto with which he galloped out after the finish in his Santa Anita victories indicates he might have what it takes to win Saturday despite the long distance.
Keep in mind, Rock Your World does possess some pedigree appeal to get the 1 1/2-mile trip. His dam, Charm the Maker, is a daughter of 2003 Belmont winner Empire Maker.
I picked Essential Quality first and Rock Your World second in the Kentucky Derby. Ditto the Belmont.
I can see Rock Your World setting the pace and finishing second to Essential Quality. Or, as I said earlier, I won’t be surprised if Rock Your World sets the pace and proves uncatchable. Or, as what occurred five weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby, maybe the Belmont will be won by somebody other than Essential Quality or Rock Your World.
And that somebody just might be Hot Rod Charlie. He certainly should be considered a major player Saturday.
It seems like it was ages ago, but Hot Rod Charlie, dismissed at odds of 94-1, gave Essential Quality a run for his money in the 1 1/16-mile Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last Nov. 6. Essential Quality, off at odds of 7-2 that day, won by three-quarters of a length by running down Hot Rod Charlie in the final furlong.
In Hot Rod Charlie’s only win this year, he was a pace factor from the outset and won the 1 3/16-mile Louisiana Derby by two lengths on March 20. The Kentucky-bred Oxbow colt then edged Essential Quality by a head for third in the Kentucky Derby.
JOCKEY MUSICAL CHAIRS
Warning: This is going to get rather convoluted.
Joel Rosario won the Louisiana Derby aboard Hot Rod Charlie. Umberto Rispoli was in the irons when Rock Your World captured the Santa Anita Derby.
Trainer John Sadler opted to go with Rosario on Rock Your World in the Kentucky Derby. That opened the door for Flavien Prat to ride Hot Rod Charlie in the Kentucky Derby. Rispoli? Instead of riding Hot Rod Charlie, a contender, Rispoli piloted a 43-1 longshot in the Kentucky Derby, Brooklyn Strong, who finished 15th.
Hot Rod Charlie finished third in the Kentucky Derby while losing by just a neck. Two days after that race, Brad Pegram, Prat’s agent, gave a commitment to trainer Doug O’Neill that Prat would ride Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont.
A couple of weeks after the Kentucky Derby, Prat won the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in an upset with 11-1 Rombauer.
Pegram and Prat honored their commitment to ride Hot Rod Charlie in the Belmont. That resulted in a domino effect in which Rosario will be reunited with Rock Your World in the Belmont. Also, since John Velezaquez’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness mount, Medina Spirit, is not running in the Belmont, it enables Johnny V. to ride Rombauer in the Belmont.
Is your head spinning yet?
I have much respect for Hot Rod Charlie. I admire the consistent form that he’s displayed ever since blinkers were added to his equipment.
In Hot Rod Charlie’s first three career starts, all sans blinkers, he never finished better than third. In his five subsequent starts, all with blinkers, he has never finished worse than third.
I believe Hot Rod Charlie has an excellent chance to finish 1-2-3 Saturday.
WHAT ABOUT ROMBAUER?
Rombauer’s dominant 3 1/2-length triumph in the Preakness was his best performance by far to date, as evidenced by his 102 Beyer for that race, a considerable improvement from his previous top figure of 88.
Perhaps the Preakness was Rombauer’s coming out party, showing the world that he’s a star. But even if that’s the case, it’s a concern from where I sit that he’s being asked to come right back three weeks later, compete at Belmont Park for the first time and now go 1 1/2 miles.
It’s my view that the Belmont field is probably a stronger one than the Preakness. That also doesn’t help Rombauer.
But I certainly would never say Rombauer can’t win the Belmont. The Kentucky-bred Twirling Candy colt definitely can win it in light of the authority with which he defeated his nine opponents in Baltimore.
It’s also to Rombauer’s credit that his final time of 1:53.62 was so good. That clocking is tied for the sixth-fastest in Preakness history when adjusted to fifths of a second.
These are the 13 fastest final times in the history of the Preakness:
1:53 flat Secretariat (1973)
1:53 1/5 Swiss Skydiver (2020)
1:53 2/5 Curlin (2007)
1:53 2/5 Louis Quatorze (1996)
1:53 2/5 Tank’s Prospect (1985)
1:53 3/5 Rombauer (2021)
1:53 3/5 Summer Squall (1990)
1:53 3/5 Gate Dancer (1984)
1:53 4/5 Sunday Silence (1989)
1:54 flat Hansel (1991)
1:54 flat Canonero II (1971)
1:54 1/5 War of Will (2019)
1:54 1/5 Codex (1980)
1:54 1/5 Spectacular Bid (1979)
If Rombauer does add a Belmont win on top of his Preakness victory, the two jewels will put him in the driver’s seat vis-a-vis a 2021 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
Rombauer is trying to win the Preakness and Belmont without having started in the Kentucky Derby, which hasn’t happened in 99 years. The last time a horse won the Preakness and Belmont without participating in the Kentucky Derby was Pillory in 1922. And in that particular case, Pillory’s connections had to choose between entering him in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness inasmuch as that year those two races were both run on May 13.
KNOWN AGENDA LOOKS BEST OF PLETCHER TRIO
Todd Pletcher, appropriately voted into the Hall of Fame this year, has won the Belmont three times. None of this year’s other Belmont trainers has even one Belmont victory to his credit.
Pletcher’s three Belmont winners were Rags to Riches in 2007, Palace Malice in 2013 and Tapwrit in 2017.
Speaking of Rags to Riches, as I’ve stated many times, it’s absurd that she is not in the Hall of Fame.
At the beginning of Tuesday’s “Belmont Stakes Draw Show” on Fox Sports 2, a portion of four previous Belmonts were shown, in this order:
--1978: Affirmed winning to become a Triple Crown winner by edging arch-rival Alydar in one of the epic stretch battles in American racing history.
--2007: Rags to Riches winning to become the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years by edging no less an adversary than a future two-time Horse of the Year in Curlin.
--2015: American Pharoah winning to end a 37-year Triple Crown drought.
--1973: The great Secretariat winning by 31 stupendous lengths to end a 25-year Triple Crown drought.
I found it interesting that Rags to Riches’ Belmont victory would be put in such illustrious company.
A few weeks ago, I discussed Rags to Riches again not getting into the Hall of Fame this year with Pletcher. He told me that he remains optimistic that the voters will see the light and vote her in one of these years. I hope Pletcher is right. I really do. But as wrong as I believe it is to keep her out of the Hall of Fame, I’m growing increasingly pessimistic that she is ever going to get in.
As for this year’s Belmont, Pletcher is represented by Known Agenda (6-1 on the morning line), Bourbonic (15-1) and Overtook (20-1).
Known Agenda, like Hot Rod Charlie, showed improvement after having blinkers added. In his first two starts with blinkers, he romped to an 11-length victory in a 1 1/8-mile allowance/optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 26, then won the Florida Derby by 2 3/4 lengths at the same distance there March 27.
In the Kentucky Derby, Known Agenda was far back early after breaking from the inside post. He never menaced and finished ninth at 9-1.
Known Agenda is by the aforementioned Curlin, who narrowly lost the 2007 Belmont to Rags to Riches.
Bourbonic ran 13th in the Kentucky Derby at 30-1. He previously had won Aqueduct’s 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial in a 72-1 shocker on April 3. Bourbonic is by Preakness winner Bernardini, a son of 1992 Belmont winner A.P. Indy and grandson of 1977 Belmont winner Seattle Slew. Bourbonic’s dam, Dancing Afleet, is a daughter of 2005 Belmont winner Afleet Alex.
Overtook, who like Known Agenda is by Curlin, ran second in Aqueduct’s 1 1/8-mile Withers Stakes on Feb. 6. He then finished third in the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 8. Overtook’s dam, Got Lucky, is a daughter of Belmont winner A.P. Indy and granddaughter of Belmont winner Seattle Slew.
France Go de Ina (30-1 on the morning line) makes his second U.S. start after finishing seventh at odds of 24-1 in the Preakness. He won two of three starts in Japan last year, then ran sixth in the UAE Derby this year prior to the Preakness.
Because he is a horse who has made three starts in Japan, France Go de Ina is eligible to receive a $1 million bonus from the New York Racing Association should he win the Belmont. The guess here is NYRA isn’t sweating bullets as to whether it will have to pay the bonus.
NO HORSE RUNS IN ALL THREE LEGS
Not one horse is competing in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year. The last time this has happened was 2010.
In 2010, Pletcher won the Kentucky Derby with Super Saver, Bob Baffert sent out Lookin At Lucky to take the Preakness, then Bill Mott saddled Drosselmeyer to win the Belmont.