Essential Quality lived up to his favorite's status Saturday, powering past frontrunner Hot Rod Charlie and hanging on through the stretch to win the 153rd Belmont Stakes.
The victory for the Godolphin-owned colt, trained by Brad Cox and ridden by Luis Saez, was a vindication after a disappointing Kentucky Derby in May -- when Essential Quality also went off as favorite but endured a rocky start and wide trip on the way to a game fourth-placed finish.
Hot Rod Charlie, who set a blistering pace out of the gate in the 1 1/2 mile race at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, finished second, 1 1/4 lengths back.
Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer was third.
Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit was a notable absentee from the third jewel in US flat racing's Triple Crown.
The horse, trained by Bob Baffert, tested positive for betamethasone -- banned on race days -- after the Kentucky Derby and Baffert was banned by the New York Racing Association from all racing at three tracks in the state, including Belmont Park.
Baffert, who has guided two horses to the Kentucky Derby treble, has also been banned from Churchill Downs for two years, although it remains to be seen if Medina Spirit's Derby victory will be invalidated.
The affair has cast yet another pall over US racing, but the Triple Crown ended with a celebratory air as 11,000 fans were allowed at Belmont, which returned after last year's pandemic-shuffled series to it's traditional spot as the third race in the series.
"That was a long way around," Cox said of the 1 1/2 mile race on the sweeping track known as "Big Sandy."
"But it was exciting," added Cox, who claimed a first Triple Crown race win. "Obviously Hot Rod Charlie ran a tremendous race and I thought the hot pace -- we were in a good spot where the would come back.
"Luis did a fantastic job of getting him in position turning for home. He was able to really show his stamina late."
For Saez, it was a first Belmont Stakes win. While Hot Rod Charlie broke away early with Rock Your World, Essential Quality and the rest of the trailing group had closed the gap as they headed into the far turn.
- Clean break was key -
Essential Quality made his move at the top of the stretch, edging ahead of the battling Hot Rod Charlie -- trained by Doug O'Neill and ridden by French jockey Flavien Prat -- and hanging on to hit the wire first.
"In the Kentucky Derby we were so confident," Saez said. "I thought we were going to win that race. He was ready for the day, but we had a little unlucky start, we got bumped breaking from there.
"So today, the main thing was try to break clean and the rest I know he's going to do it."
Cox offered thanks to Essential Quality owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum.
The United Arab Emirates ruler had faced calls to be banned from the Kentucky Derby following concern over the whereabouts of his daughter, but Cox had only praise for an owner who had been "so important to us the last two years."