Thanks to COVID and maybe an anticlimactic feel to the Triple Crown, it was not the lavish production that previous Belmont Stakes draws have been.
Instead of a big lunch at the skating rink at Rockefeller Center or a cocktail party before a Mets game at Citi Field, it was a spartan gathering with pots of coffee Tuesday morning on the ground floor at Belmont Park. That is where Essential Quality was drawn as the favorite for Saturday’s $1.5 million race.
Trainer Brad Cox was not there when his fourth-place horse from the Kentucky Derby wound up in post position 2. Essential Quality (2-1) was also made the morning-line favorite in the field of eight, the smallest for a Belmont since American Pharoah beat seven rivals in 2015.
But he told Horse Racing Nation by phone, “I was fine with the draw. Hopefully the break will be uneventful.”
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won the Belmont three times, thinks Essential Quality is one of four horses who should be regarded as the ones to beat.
“To me it’s Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie, Rombauer and Rock Your World, if he comes back to his Santa Anita Derby (G1) form,” said Pletcher, who has three horses from his barn in the field.
Conventional wisdom also suggests the field will be chasing early pacesetter Rock Your World (9-2), who got post 7.
“Good draw,” his trainer John Sadler texted as he was about to fly east from California.
Cox said he is not concerned with Rock Your World being drawn outside Essential Quality. “That's fine. I don't expect to be on the lead. We have a good pilot in Luis (Saez), who can put him in a good position, so I don't expect any problems there.”
But Hot Rod Charlie (7-2) was on the lead for most of the race 2 1/2 months ago when he won the Louisiana Derby (G2). So from post 4, could he conceivably challenge Rock Your World early?
“That’s the beauty of earmuffs if he’s here, but that’s also the beauty of having Flavien Prat,” said Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer Doug O’Neill, referring to the jockey who will get off Preakness winner Rombauer (3-1) to return to the horse who finished third in the Derby. “Win, lose or draw, you know he’s going to make the best decisions out there. So it’ll be up to him.”
Japan shipper France Go de Ina (30-1), the longest shot on the board, might also be a pacesetting candidate coming out of stall 5 with his new rider Ricardo Santana Jr. At least one of his connections is already tamping down those expectations.
“Probably not challenge him, but we’d like to be near the pace,” training assistant and exercise rider Masaki Takano said through an interpreter. “We’ll just watch what those leading horses do and kind of sit back, hopefully without getting kickback in our face so we can make our move later.”
Trying to become only the third Preakness starter – let alone winner – in the last 14 runnings to finish first in a 1 1/2-mile running of the Belmont, Rombauer (3-1) was made the second choice by morning-line writer David Aragona.
Florida Derby (G1) winner Known Agenda (6-1), who was ninth in the Derby, leads the Pletcher trio that also includes Bourbonic (15-1) and Overtook (20-1).
“He’s doing great,” Pletcher said. “I’m really pleased with him since the Derby, and everything is going according to plans.”
Both Rombauer and Known Agenda would appreciate a hot pace being set early. Will Rock Your World, maybe Hot Rod Charlie and perhaps France Go de Ina cooperate?
“If they go 45-and-change I’d be happy,” Pletcher said with a smile. “I just hope they go 47-and-change, 48, something like that. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be sending, but there’s two or three of them that should be concerned about letting another one get away.”
|2021 BELMONT STAKES (G 1)|
|1||Bourbonic||K Carmouche||Todd Pletcher|
|2||Essential Quality||Luis Saez||Brad Cox|
|3||Rombauer||Johnny Valezquez||M McCarty|
|4||Hot Rod Charlie||Flavien Prat||D O'Neill|
|5||France Go de Ina||R Santana Jr||H Mori|
|6||Known Agenda||Irad Ortiz Jr||Todd Pletcher|
|7||Rock Your World||Jose Rosario||J Sadler|
|8||Overtook||M Franco||Todd Fletcher|