Essential Quality's thrilling win in the Belmont Stakes brought to a close an exciting and controversial Triple Crown Series that returned - at least from a scheduling perspective - to some sense of normalcy after the COVID-induced havoc of 2020.
It took three tries, but a favourite finally prevailed after 12/1 underdogs entered the winner's circle in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
It was the first Triple Crown Series win for trainer Brad Cox, with the 2020 two-year-old champion horse of the year coming through as the favourite in the Belmont Stakes after finishing fourth as the betting odds leader in the Kentucky Derby.
He won after duelling Hot Rod Charlie down the stretch, with the two horses more than 10 lengths ahead of the field.
How it happened
There wasn't a lot of drama when it came to who would be the betting favourite in the Kentucky Derby, as Essential Quality followed up on his undefeated two-year-old campaign with a pair of prep race wins in 2021 - the final one in the 100-40-20-10 Blue Grass Stakes. He didn't race in a 50-20-10-5 qualifying race, but he didn't need to as no other horse won more than one prep race.
As exciting as the end of the Kentucky Derby was, with 12/1 Medina Spirit holding off three other contenders down the stretch, it was overshadowed with the later revelation that the winner had tested positive for illegal levels of betamethasone. He subsequently failed a second test of the split blood sample, resulting in Churchill Downs suspending trainer Bob Baffert for two years.
The New York Racing Association had previously suspended Baffert indefinitely, with the sport taking a big hit in the process. Meanwhile, with all of those distractions, Rombauer brought the focus back to racing with a come-from-behind win in the Preakness, again producing a 12/1 underdog winner as he caught and ran past favourite Midnight Bourbon down the stretch, crossing the finish line three-and-a-half lengths ahead.
From the two longshot wins in Aqueduct's final two prep races to favourite Essential Quality giving Brad Cox his first Triple Crown victory, the last six months have given horse racing a solid foundation to rebound from the trials of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even the likely disqualification of Medina Spirit and elevation of Mandaloun as the Kentucky Derby winner isn't likely to dampen the enthusiasm entering the Breeders' Cup season and the Road to the Kentucky Derby in the fall.
If Essential Quality continues to race to the end of his three-year-old campaign, he has a good chance of joining horses like Curlin as back-to-back Horse of the Year winners. If he continues to win, his fourth-place Kentucky Derby finish may very well be viewed as just an anomaly in an otherwise spectacular career.
Horse racing is looking forward to full infields, Preakness craziness, and putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror in 2022, with or without Bob Baffert at the Kentucky Derby.