Essential Quality sat off a brisk pace set by Hot Rod Charlie, who carved out fractions of 22.78, 46.49, and 1:12.07 for six furlongs. Hot Rod Charlie was able to repel early challenges from Rock Your World and France Go de Ina down the backstretch.
“He broke well, but it took four or five strides to get position going into the first turn,” said Essential Quality’s trainer, Brad Cox. “I was a touch shocked. I thought we’d be a little closer on our own. When we saw the opening quarter, I felt good. And then the 46 he was laying mid-pack and on the outside.”
Heading into the sweeping final turn at Belmont Park, jockey Luis Saez asked the 6-5 favorite Essential Quality to make his closing move on the outside and he was able to easily draw along side Hot Rod Charlie.
“At that point, even going the distance, he should be closing at this pace,” Cox added. “Luis did a good job of getting him into position. Turning for home, we were pretty much on even terms with the leader. Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race to hang around that late after doing most of the dirty work. Our horse really showed his talent and stamina.”
Down the stretch those two battled head-to-head until Essential Quality was able to draw away to a final margin of victory of 1 1/4 lengths in a time of 2:27.11 for the 1 1/2 mile Test of the Champion. Hot Road Charlie finished second, 11 1/4 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher Rombauer, who won the Preakness.
Essential Quality improved his record to 6 wins from 7 starts, which includes three Grade 1 victories. The only blemish on his record was a fourth-place finish as the favorite in this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1). The son of Tapit became the first horse to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and go on to victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Cox felt that having Tapit as a sire was a key to success for Essential Quality, who turned out to be the stallion's fourth son to win the Belmont Stakes.
“With the Tapit on top we really thought he would get the mile and a half when given the opportunity. We always thought he had the ability.”
For both Cox, the 2020 Eclipse Award winning top trainer, and owner Godolphin this is their first win in a Triple Crown race. In the Kentucky Derby this year, Cox finished second with Mandaloun.
Saez also got his first official victory in a Triple Crown race following the 2019 Kentucky Derby when he was aboard Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first but was disqualified for interference at the top of the stretch.
“It was so special. I’m so proud to be here and come out with a victory,” said Saez. “The [2019 Kentucky] Derby was a little [tough], but you know stuff happens so I’m OK.”
Essential Quality, who now has career earnings of $3,215,144, paid $4.60, 3.00, 2.60 to his supporters. The $2 exacta with Hot Rod Charlie, which was the top two betting choices, returned $15.
Doug O’Neill, the trainer of Hot Rod Charlie, had nothing but praise for his colt.
"Our horse told us today that he's a gamer. He got pushed. He did all the dirty work. Essential Quality ran a huge race and I think Charlie showed he was trying every step of the way from gate-to-wire. He just couldn't hold off a champ."
With only one loss in his career and the Belmont victory, Essential Quality has regained the top spot in the male 3-year-old division.
“The body of work that this colt has done and the way he has stepped up, he’s so consistent,” Cox stated. “He’s never run a bad race. He’s the champion right now.”