Entering the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Essential Quality was the favorite to win. He had never lost in five career races, so it made sense why the oddsmakers thought the colt would run to victory. Instead, he ended up fourth and wasn't a factor in the finish.
Despite that, Essential Quality was also the favorite heading into this year's Belmont Stakes. And this time, he didn't let down those who backed him.
With an impressive second-half surge, Essential Quality moved to the front of the eight-horse field at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. After settling into fifth, he moved past Preakness champion Rombauer before overtaking the long shot France Go de Ina and Rock Your World and pulling even with Hot Rod Charlie.
Coming out of the final turn, Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie were neck and neck as the pair of colts separated themselves from the rest of the pack. And although Hot Rod Charlie did his best to hold off a charging Essential Quality, it was an unsuccessful effort.
Essential Quality took the lead late and held off Hot Rod Charlie to win by 1 ¼ lengths, finishing in a time of two minutes, 27.11 seconds. It was an impressive showing that gave trainer Brad Cox his first career win at a Triple Crown event.
"That was a long way around there, a mile and a half, but it was exciting," Cox said, per Stephen Whyno of the Associated Press. "It looked like the horse on the inside [Hot Rod Charlie], he still had run left. I knew it was going to be a battle down the lane."
But Essential Quality was too strong to hold off. And that was what many had expected from the colt at the Kentucky Derby, where he ran a solid race but came up short of a winning effort.
Like Cox, jockey Luis Saez had never previously won a Triple Crown event. He had crossed the finish line first at one before, the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but his horse, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interference.
Saez had no doubts that the colt was going to be capable of moving to the front of the field even though he wasn't there during the first half of the race.
"He doesn't care who it is; he's going to want to beat them," Saez said, per Byron King of BloodHorse. "So I knew he was going to show up at the top of the stretch."
While Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie battled for the win, they pulled far away from the rest of the horses. Hot Rod Charlie may have ended up second, but he was also 11 ¼ lengths ahead of third-place finisher Rombauer.
Essential Quality may not have set a Belmont Stakes record—legendary Triple Crown champion Secretariat completed the race in 2:24 in 1973—but it was a strong performance that showcased the skills that made him a winner at previous races such as the Southwest Stakes and Blue Grass Stakes.
At the Kentucky Derby, Essential Quality didn't break well from the gate. And he didn't run a great race from there, as King pointed out that Trakus data shows the colt covered 68 feet more than eventual winner Medina Spirit at that event.
That wasn't an issue at the Belmont. Even though Essential Quality wasn't in front early, he was never too far back and was always in a position to make a move.
With that performance, Essential Quality provided a thrilling finish to Triple Crown season. The colt may not have met expectations at the first of the three races, but he sure did in the final leg.