“A true champion is a true champion. They go fight and, win or lose, give it their all.”

Glover Teixeira

As Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie left the second turn and entered the long Belmont home stretch on a picture perfect Saturday evening in New York, one’s mind had to drift back to another Belmont in another time, now long ago.

The year was 1978…

…in the U.S., Jimmy Carter was President. The average American was earning around $16,000 a year. Amid rampant inflation, a newly built home was a pricey $60,000. The OPEC oil crisis meant gasoline cost a staggering 90 cents a gallon. The first so-called “test-tube baby” was born in London and, in Rome, Pope John Paul I passed away after only a month in office.

At the cinema, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall won four Oscars, including Best Picture. In sports, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Denver Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII. Leon Spinks stripped Muhammad Ali of his heavyweight boxing championship in a Las Vegas shocker and baseball’s Pete Rose had his consecutive hit streak end at 44 in Atlanta. In tennis, Bjorn Borg won his third French Open in Paris and Chris Evert her fifth consecutive U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, NY.

…and on the racetrack, Affirmed and Alydar traded hooves in what has become known as Thoroughbred racing’s greatest rivalry, culminating in a Belmont Stakes for the ages.

Horseracing turned back the page Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont, NY. Following over two troubled years that saw inexplicable horse deaths at California’s Santa Anita Park; the disqualification of 2019 Kentucky Derby first-across-the-wire Maximum Security, and an international drug scandal involving his trainer, Jason Servis; the possible disqualification of this year’s Derby winner Medina Spirit for the presence of a raceday-banned substance, and the ban from Churchill Downs and New York of his trainer and American Thoroughbred horseracing’s “face,” Bob Baffert.

Amid the sport’s current troubles, two young horses reminded the world what horseracing is really about at its grandest.

Like Affirmed and Alydar before them, Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie are just kids, mere three-year olds. But like that pairing, the duo put on a show Saturday that will be remembered and recollected as long as there is horseracing.

It had already been one of the most memorable days in Belmont history.  

Fans were back in the stands after COVID-19 restrictions had been eased in New York.

On a clear day on the fast track called “Big Sandy,” Jockey Jose Ortiz, riding with the spirit of his brother, Irad Ortiz Jr., injured and off his mounts after a serious fall during Thursday’s races at Belmont, won three contests before the day’s card was half over.

Letruska, a previously lightly regarded filly because her fame had been claimed mostly in Mexico, proved she is the real deal. She doubled down on her nose defeat of Eclipse Award-winning Older Female Monomoy Girl with a romping 2 3/4 length’s victory over her arch-rival, Shedaresthedevil, in the Ogden Phipps (G1), one of Ortiz’s wins on the day.

Jockey Jose Ortiz rode Letruska to the win the Ogden Phipps (G1). All images ©NYRA.

In the Metropolitan Handicap (G1), the “Met Mile,” known as the birth race of sires, heavily favored Knicks Go was a no show, leading much of the way, but tiring and finishing fourth to upset winner Silver State.

Ortiz also captured the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) with Silver State. ©NYRA

But those were just the hors d’oeuvres—the steak and lobster entrée was on the 6 pm dinnertime menu.

A “small” Belmont 153

So it came to be, in fairytale-like fashion, that after a long day of inspiring performances and surprise winners, the very best lined up in the gates for the 153rd Belmont Stakes, a race far older than even what is thought to be America’s most prestigious race, the Kentucky Derby.

It was a small field, only eight horses, the smallest Belmont field since 2015 when Derby and Preakness winner American Pharaoh scared off rivals and went on to win that Belmont and claim the 12th American Triple Crown in history, before also claiming the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But small can be deceiving, as it was with this Belmont field, each horse in it having a legitimate claim to becoming a victor in the “Test of Champions.”

On the rail was Bourbonic, winner of the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct, leaving from the Belmont’s winningest (24) #1 post position. His sire, Bernardini, and dam sire Afleet Alex, both had claimed memorable Preakness wins in 2006 and 2005 respectively.

Speaking of the Preakness, there was surprise winner Rombauer, whose victory in this year’s contest elevated the profile of “small time” trainer Michael McCarthy, but whose presence was doubtable as trainer and owner debated his suitability for the mile-and-a-half test.

Japan’s France Go De Ina’s connections thought “Why not?”—lured by the offer of a $1 million bonus left on the table for any Japanese horse that could win this year’s Belmont. He’d won on dirt at just over a mile and did manage to challenge Rombauer on the Pimlico backstretch in the Preakness. So why not?

Known Agenda was thought to be sitting on a big race. One of two sons of looming next super-sire Curlin in the race, the Todd Pletcher trainee was a Florida Derby (G1) winner and had the emotional lift of being guided by Jose Ortiz.

Rock Your World has been one of this year’s racing mysteries. The winner in three of his four starts leading up to the Belmont, his Santa Anita Derby (G1) win had handicappers salivating because of his impressive speed figures. But they were left dry-mouthed after a Kentucky Derby that saw him hit hard at the start by Highly Motivated, effectively ending his Derby challenge on the way to a 17th place finish. Many professional handicappers considered that Derby a one-off and had him near the top of the Belmont mix.

On the far outside was another Curlin son, Overtook. With only one early win, he was in the gate mostly because of his breeding. He was second in the Derby-prep Withers (G3) at Aqueduct and third in the Peter Pan (G3) at Belmont. But his royal pedigree merited the opportunity.

And then there were two…

The best champions need a champion foe to legitimize their mettle. Muhammad Ali needed Joltin’ Joe Frazier in the ring, the New York Yankees need the Boston Red Sox on the diamond; heck, Coca Cola needs Pepsi.

Essential Quality entered the Belmont as a 2-1 favorite. The Eclipse Award-winning Two-Year-Old Champion suffered his first defeat in the Kentucky Derby, a length-back of the current winner, Medina Spirit.

That performance was marred by his placement on the outside #14 post, even more by the bump he took at the start from Rock Your World, the horse collided into by Highly Motivated.

A son of Tapit, bred and owned by Godolphin, Essential Quality is a stalker, possessed of breeding for endurance but not exceptional speed. Think long-haul aircraft versus local jets. His race is to establish position off the pace-maker and move when the path is clear and the moment opportune. He seeks to wear down opponents.

That strategy worked—barely—in the Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland, the most challenging of the Kentucky Derby prep races, against Highly Motivated.

That didn’t happen in his Derby. Forced wide after the bump at the start, he also was a bit further back than would have been best in a mile-and-a-quarter contest, in fifth position. He endured to the end however, closing ground and traveling an estimated 68 feet—6-7 lengths—further than the winner according to Equibase statistics, but could come only within a length of victory.

Trainer Brad Cox chose to skip the Preakness. The near-term goal is the Travers Stakes, the so-called “Midsummer (Kentucky) Derby” at Saratoga. The longer term goal clearly is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Del Mar. Since the Preakness didn’t fit that plan, the Belmont became a necessary test.

Hot Rod Charlie is one of racing’s Cinderella stories. Purchased for what these days is a mere $110,000 at the Fasig-Tipton October sale in 2019, the son of another Preakness winner, Oxbow (2013), has speed on his dam sire’s side (Indian Charlie).

He finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a 94-1 moonshot, behind Essential Quality and, though not the Derby winner, captured third place ahead of Essential Quality in the Derby. He also was thought to be sitting on a big race.

He was.

Riders up!

Horseracing is the reduction of life into a scant few minutes: Preparation, hope, exhilaration, despair. All are in a horse race.

It applies not only to the horses, but to the riders as well.

This Belmont wasn’t Luis Saez’s “first rodeo” as the saying goes. He was the rider on Maximum Security in the 2019 Kentucky Derby. First across the wire, he and Max were deemed to have interfered following an objection and disqualified. Country House was awarded the Derby win.

The objecting jockey that day was Flavien Prat.

Prat took up the Belmont ride on Hot Rot Charlie after committing to it before his winning Preakness ride on Rombauer. He could have kept Rombauer, but chose to honor his prior commitment.

Racing often is properly termed “The Sport of Kings,” but it hosts princes as well; in this Belmont, one seeking redemption, another confirmation.

…and they’re off!

The way you beat a stalker like Essential Quality is to outrun him, to use speed to defeat endurance, to hope your foe falls short of overcoming the advantage you gained in the early stages of the race.

Hot Rod Charlie broke quickly and went right to the front. The pace he set was insane, near 40 mph. He ran the fastest quarter mile in recorded Belmont history, the fastest half mile since Secretariat in 1973.

Charlie dispatched of trailers Rock Your World and France Go De Ina in fairly quick order. Fans of Essential Quality had to be concerned as he stayed far back early. Would he have the endurance and enough speed to make up the distance lost in the early stages of the race?

Early challengers gone, Hot Rod Charlie kept up the breathtaking pace through the backstretch. Known Agenda moved, but the early pace had vanquished him.

Deep in the backstretch and with a clear path, Essential Quality pounced. A lesser competitor would have been cooked by this time, but this Tapit son, relishing distance, quickly gained: Fourth, third, second….

By the end of the second turn, Essential Quality was challenging for the lead. By the quarter pole, he was eye-to-eye with Hot Rod Charlie.

No one can know what a horse thinks or how he will respond when he pulls beside a competitor. In this case, neither Charlie nor Essential Quality backed down.

Their duel through the long Belmont homestretch left their competitors somewhere in New Jersey—third place finisher Rombauer would be 12 lengths behind at race’s end.

The blistering pace continued to and through the sixteenth pole when their genes made their presence known.

Essential Quality was regally bred, and for endurance: Godolphin owner Sheikh Mohammed is himself an endurance rider.

Charlie was bred for speed, which he had shown since the start of the race and as far as the quarter pole.

What happened now was a stare-down. Following his narrow Blue Grass triumph and Kentucky Derby loss, many began to see Essential Quality as a short-lived phenom, a Nyquist. He didn’t overcome his competitors in the Derby stretch, he would fail here.

For Charlie, this was about—guts. How badly do you want to win?

The mind drifts back to Arrogate’s 2017 Dubai World Cup, when that grey son of Unbridled’s Song went from last to first after a very poor start and left all that was left of him on that rain-soaked Meydan dirt track to gain a victory. He was never the same after that race.

So, on this day, and for Charlie? He would leave everything.

Essential Quality kept a nose in front until the sixteenth pole when he began to pull away. Charlie gamely stayed, but the race was over.

At the finish, it was a length-and-a-quarter advantage for Essential Quality, and a noble—very noble—defeat for Hot Rod Charlie.

Prat and Saez traded fist bumps after the finish, each probably amazed and exhilarated at what each had just experienced.

After the wire

Following a big win, jockeys often look skyward, both in gratitude for their victory but also for other reasons. Saez looked up to the sky, he later would say to “honor my brother Juan. He’s always watching over me and my family. I was dedicating this race to him.”

Saez’s jockey brother died in a riding accident in 2014.

Ortiz looks to his late-brother Juan. ©NYRA

Saez garnered his first win in his fifth Belmont. “New York is like my second home,” said the rider. “This is the race I wanted to win. Today, we made history.”

Unlike the race, the post-race press conference atmosphere was calm, perhaps because Essential Quality trainer Brad Cox and Godolphin’s Jimmy Bell were drained of emotion after what they just had witnessed.

For Bell and Godolphin, it had been a monster day worldwide. Homebreds owned by the racing giant captured not only the Belmont. Althiqua and Summer Romance placed 1-2 for trainer Charlie Appleby in the mile-long turf Just A Game Stakes (G1) on the Belmont undercard. In England, Adayar scored a surprise victory in the Group 1 Cazoo Derby at Epsom, England’s biggest flat race, also for Appleby.

But for Jimmy Bell, President of Godolphin USA, Belmont’s blanket of white carnations was the flower the royal blue of Godolphin valued most on this day. He was effusive in his praise for the passion and commitment to racing of Godolphin owner Sheikh Mohammed, again denied the Kentucky Derby crown he has sought for decades.

“We were so fortunate to have another opportunity,” said  Bell, referring to the Derby gone awry. “He (Essential Quality) has never run a bad race in his life and I think he showed today he met the test of a champion. To do what he did as a 2-year-old and come through these races as a 3-year-old with the mile-and-a-half Classic…it’s a great tribute to him.”

Cox, celebrating his first Triple Crown Classic victory, attributed his charge’s stamina and grit to his breeding. Referring to his notoriously unruly sire, Tapit, Cox added the day’s lightest moment. “He’s a kind horse. He’ll bite you, but he’s kind,” said Cox laughing. “That mile and a half may have taken a little bit of starch out of him.”

Was this a redemption thing for him? Cox was asked. “I guess it may have been a little bit,” understating the obvious. “Whenever you’re defeated, you gotta get back on track, right?”

And, using an apropos allusion to boxing after the Thrilla’ In New York just concluded, Cox ended by saying: “He’s the champion until he’s knocked out. He holds the belt.”

While there was praise for the champion, there was no shame for the challenger and the certain promise the pair will lock up again, perhaps in Essential Quality’s targeted Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 28, perhaps elsewhere.

“Our horse told us today he’s a gamer,” said Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer, Doug O’Neill. “He got pushed. He did all the dirty work. Essential Quality ran a huge race. Charlie showed he was trying every step of the way from gate to wire. He just couldn’t hold off the champ.”

Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, just kids, restored the childlike wonder grownup racing fans have for these spectacular athletes. They served as a reminder of the glorious rivalries in racing’s past—of Secretariat and Sham, of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, certainly of Affirmed and Alydar—made present.

On this Belmont day, Essential Quality, with only that ill-fated Derby marring his 7:6-0-0 record, made a very early case for a year-end Eclipse Award, certainly as Champion Three-Year-Old, perhaps even Horse of the Year, while a valiant foe remains lurking on his heels.

On this Belmont day, there was no talk of the horse fatalities, of the problem of illegal substances plaguing racing, of the controversy surrounding Godolphin owner Sheikh Mohammed’s personal life.

On this Belmont day, there was only redemption.

On this day and at this place, perhaps the real winner of Belmont 153 was horseracing, a victory it so desperately needed.