As was the case for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, it was a gorgeous day at Belmont Park on Saturday — the sun was shining, the track was fast, and after a year away because of the coronavirus pandemic, the crowd was more joyful than inebriated. It was a trifecta of perfect conditions for the Belmont Stakes, one of horse racing’s most cherished showcases.
Essential Quality, the Derby favorite who could not overcome a bad start, sat out the Preakness in the hopes of a better showing in the Belmont. His connections still believed that he belonged at the top of his 3-year-old class.
Their plan paid off as he outdueled Hot Rod Charlie in the stretch in what essentially became a two-horse race to win by a one-and-a-quarter lengths. He completed the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion in 2:27.11, becoming the fourth horse sired by Tapit to outlast his rivals in the final leg of the Triple Crown. He paid $4.60 on a $2 bet to win. Rombauer, the Preakness winner, finished third.
It was the first Belmont victory for the trainer Brad Cox, 41, who has rapidly risen to the top of the sport, winning the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer last year after saddling four Breeders’ Cup winners and winning 30 graded stakes races.
Essential Quality is owned by the controversial ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and was ridden by Luis Saez, who rode Maximum Security to apparent victory in the 2019 Derby only to be disqualified for interference after the race. They each earned their first Belmont victory.
“He broke clean, and the rest of the way I knew he was going to do it,” Saez said, expressing more confidence than the betting crowd that watched nervously as Essential Quality battled Hot Rod Charlie nearly all the way to the wire.
Yet Saez’s first thought after the race was not wondering if he could have won a Triple Crown in 2019 or 2021. It was of his brother, Juan, who died in 2014 at age 17 after the horse he was riding stumbled during a race at Indiana Grand.
“I was giving thanks to the lord and my brother Juan; he’s always with me,” he said. “I dedicated this to him.”
On Saturday, the joyous atmosphere and a victory by the horse who was supposed to outclass them all in the Run for the Roses almost made it seem as if all was right with the sport. If only that were the case.
It has been a tumultuous spring for horse racing. Medina Spirit’s win in the Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, was immediately marred for the horse and his trainer, Bob Baffert, with a failed drug test. The horse was allowed to run in the Preakness while a second sample was tested. He finished in third place, saving the Belmont organizers from an extremely uncomfortable choice had a Triple Crown been on the line coming into the final race.
After the Preakness, the New York Racing Association said that Baffert, a two-time Triple Crown winner and the most famous person in the sport, would be barred from running horses at any New York tracks until further notice.
On Wednesday, the positive test was confirmed, which set the stage for Medina Spirit to become the second winner in the 147-year history of the Derby to be disqualified because of a failed drug test.
Churchill Downs suspended Baffert from entering horses at the racetrack in Louisville, Ky., for two years, shutting him out of the Derby for 2022 and 2023.
“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs, said Wednesday.
The scandal came as horse racing prepares to implement the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, which was passed last year in Congress. It will take effect July 1, 2022, and calls for a board overseen by the Federal Trade Commission to write uniform rules and penalties to be enforced by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
Even without the renewed drug problems, horse racing had been through a tumultuous time of late after the coronavirus pandemic forced heavy alterations to the Triple Crown trail in 2020. None of the races admitted spectators, and the Derby and the Preakness were delayed. The Belmont was held last June as the first leg of the Triple Crown for the first time. The Derby followed in September and the Preakness came in October.
By the time 2021 rolled around, many had forgotten the debacle at the 2019 Derby when, after a tense review period that lasted nearly 22 minutes, the Churchill Downs stewards disqualified Maximum Security, and Saez, for interfering with other horses and gave the victory to the 65-1 shot Country House.
This year, the Belmont Stakes returned to its normal mile-and-a-half distance (it was a mile and an eighth last year) and its traditional placement as the final leg of the Triple Crown, befitting its nickname as the Test of the Champion. Still, there were lingering reminders all around of the pandemic.
Only 11,238 fans sprinkled about the racetrack on Long Island, organizers said, although the crowd likely appeared bigger than it was because the Islanders’ new arena, set to open for the 2021-22 N.H.L. season, cut Belmont Park’s famed backyard in half. Gone are the days of overflowing coolers, camping chairs and picnic blankets; now picnic tables are being sold for over $100 a piece. The Belmont’s attendance record of 120,139 was set in 2004, when Birdstone denied Smarty Jones a Triple Crown sweep.
John Dibs of Howard Beach, Queens, was at one of those tables with a group of childhood friends. They all had some sort of connection to Belmont Park — Dibs’s great-grandfather was a blacksmith at New York’s tracks for 50 years — and have been coming to this race and sitting in the backyard for as long as they have been pals.
After grumbling for a bit about losing the pond, the ducks, the trees, the playground and the parking, they all agreed that one alternative — not being allowed to come to the race at all — was much worse.
“To be with family and friends again and sharing the day, to us, it’s almost like you’re going home,” he said.