By Richard Rosenblatt
In what looks to be one of the more competitive fields in Belmont Stakes history, beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality is the slight 2-1 betting choice over Preakness winner Rombauer for Saturday’s final leg of the Triple Crown.
A smaller-than-expected field of eight was entered on Tuesday following the withdrawal of Rebel’s Romance due to a hind leg infection, and the earlier defection of Brooklyn Strong.
No matter. This field features the return of Essential Quality, who did not have a smooth trip in finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 1 but just over a length behind first-place finisher Medina Spirit.
Essential Quality, the 2-year-old champion with a 5-for-6 record, comes into the 1 ½-mile Belmont, aka the “Test of the Champion,’’ off two solid workouts. Trainer Brad Cox says, “Everything has gone well with him since the Derby, and I think the Belmont distance will suit him well, being a son of Tapit.”
Rombauer (3-1), who soared into the limelight with his surprise victory in the Preakness, has a new rider in Hall of Famer John Velazquez. Flavien Prat, who was aboard for the Preakness, decided to get back on Hot Rod Charlie, who ran third in the Derby, and is the third choice on the morning-line at 7-2.
Pletcher has 3 in the Belmont
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher entered three horses – Florida Derby (G1) winner Known Agenda (ninth in the Derby), Wood Memorial (G2) winner Bourbonic (13th in the Derby) and Overtook (third in the Grade 3 Peter Pan on May 8).
Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Rock Your World, who got off to a slow start and then was jostled between horses before finishing 17th in the Derby, is back for the Belmont and listed as the 9-2 fourth choice.
Post position isn’t as important in this race, the longest and most grueling of three races over five weeks. Essential Quality, with Luis Saez aboard, drew post 2 with Rombauer next to him in post 3.
Pletcher is looking for his fourth Belmont win, having won with the filly Rags to Riches in 2007, Palace Malice in 2013, and Tapwrit in 2017. He also has six second place finishes in the Belmont.
No Baffert for the Belmont
Absent but not forgotten in this wild and crazy Triple Crown is Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. After Baffert-trained Medina Spirit won the Derby, a post-race test came up positive for the steroid betamethasone, and if the second sample is positive the horse will be disqualified and runner-up Mandaloun would be declared the winner.
Baffert has been suspended from entering or stabling horses at New York Racing Association tracks (Belmont, Saratoga, Aqueduct) pending the final test results.
Last year, the Belmont was run as the first leg of the Triple Crown in June due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was shortened to 1 1/8 miles. No spectators were allowed. On Saturday, NYRA expects a crowd of 11,000 to show up at the cavernous racetrack for the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes.
5 Derby runners back for Preakness
Five Belmont entries ran in the Derby and skipped the Preakness: Rock Your World, Hot Rod Charlie, Essential Quality, Known Agenda, and Bourbonic. Two skipped the Derby and ran in the Preakness: Rombauer and France Go de Ina. Overtook is running in his first Triple Crown race.
Picking up Johnny V for Rombauer is pretty good
Rombauer, trained by Michael McCarthy, could be the first Preakness-Belmont winner since Afleet Alex in 2005. Back after a three-week break and running a longer distance is a challenge, but McCarthy says Rombauer, “has proven to be effective wherever he goes and whatever the surface is. I’m very pleased at everything I’m seeing from him.”
It’s rare when a jockey takes off a classic winner for another horse in another classic but picking up Velazquez could be a bonus.
“No harm in that,’’ said McCarthy, “Johnny is riding in career form.’’
He added: “Belmont has been his home track for umpteen years. It’s not often you win a classic and need to find a jockey thereafter, but we’re happy where we are, and I hope everybody else is happy with their decision.”