June 5th, 2021 marked the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes, known to many as the “Test of the Champion”; this nickname is fitting, as the Belmont is the third and final leg of the Triple Crown series, usually which determines whether or not the Crown will be awarded for a given year. Given that no horse had won both the Preakness and Derby this year, it was apparent that there would be no 2021 Triple Crown winner.
2020 was the only year in which the Belmont was the first race run, as the Derby and Preakness had both been postponed to later in the year amidst the pandemic. Also in 2020, the Belmont was run for the first time not on the first Saturday of June, as it took place June 20th. All three races returned to their usual order and dates in 2021.
This year’s Belmont took place at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, for the 110th time in history. The Stakes was capped at 11,000 spectators this year, most of which who were maskless; attendees were required to present both proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test upon entering the grounds.
Given much recent controversy regarding accountability, ethics, and illegal activity in the world of racing, Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit, the formerly unofficial Kentucky Derby winner, did not race. After failing a post-race drug test, as well as a follow-up test, by testing positive for betamethasone, an unauthorized steroid, in his blood sample. Medina Spirit is on the verge of disqualification from the Derby and becoming only the second horse in history to be disqualified from the race.
Medina Spirit was allowed to race in the Preakness but was largely unsuccessful, finishing third. The horse was not permitted to race in the Belmont. Since the post-race follow-up test, Baffert has since been placed under a two-year suspension by Churchill Downs and an indefinite suspension by the New York Racing Association. He is also facing a class-action law suit by a group of gamblers who claim Baffert to be responsible for their lost wages during the Derby. If Medina Spirit were to be disqualified, Brad H. Cox’s Mandaloun would be named the official Derby winner.
Brad Cox’s Essential Quality, under jockey Luis Saez, won this year’s Belmont Stakes, beating Doug O’Neill’s Hot Rod Charlie by 1 ¼ strides. It was Saez’s first Belmont win, though he does have history in the Triple Crown series.
Saez rode Maximum Security to initial victory in the 2019 Kentucky Derby, though the results were ultimately invalidated on the account of race interference. Maximum Security is the only horse to date to have been disqualified from a Derby race.
Hot Rod Charlie set the pace and held the lead for the former part of the race, until he was overtaken by Essential Quality around the final turn.
Essential Quality was both the Derby (at 5-2 odds) and Belmont favorite (at 2-1 odds), though after a rough start, he finished fourth in the Derby. Essential Quality paid $4.60 to win, $3.00 to place, and $2.60 to show, claiming $800,000 of the $1.5 million purse.
Rombauer, who won the Preakness Stakes, finished third in the Belmont.
Essential Quality is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mohammed has been found under recent controversy regarding the disappearance of his two daughters, one of which has not been seen since 2000, and another who was detained while trying to flee from Dubai in 2018. Videos have emerged of the latter daughter claiming to have been held against her will.
He has received stark criticism by human rights agencies after a judge in England ruled in 2020 that he had organized their abductions, and there were also many calls to bar him from entering any horses into the Belmont.
Despite this renewed controversy, after the race, trainer Cox paid homage to Sheikh Mohammed: “Sheikh Mohammed, he’s been supporting us the last two years, and this is a tremendous organization, world-class organization, and we wouldn’t be here obviously without this horse and his support, so I just wanted to really thank him”.
No matter anyone’s stance on Bob Baffert’s role in Medina Spirit’s drug test failure or on Sheikh Mohammed’s role in his daughter’s abductions, all can agree that the world of racing is next to nothing without its consistent scandal and controversy.