'Formidable group' of horses finish Triple Crown at Belmont

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Kentucky Derby winner could be disqualified for the second time in three years, the Preakness winner pulled off a big upset and now nobody knows who is the best 3-year-old horse in the country.

Perhaps it'll be settled at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

The Belmont doesn’t have the buzz of a Triple Crown on the line or drama surrounding Bob Baffert, though it’s shaping up to be the most competitive race of the three and one of the best of the entire year. Preakness winner Rombauer, Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality and third-place finisher Hot Rod Charlie headline a deep field of eight that will rival almost any other race in 2021.

"It’s a formidable group," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who has three horses in the race. “It’s a good field. I think horses are coming out of the right races: Essential Quality’s been consistent every time, I thought Hot Rod Charlie ran a great race in the Derby, if Rock Your World gets off to a better start, Rombauer coming off obviously winning the Preakness.”

While Kentucky Derby Medina Spirit probably wasn't being entered in the Belmont anyway after finishing third in the Preakness, the New York Racing Association banned Baffert indefinitely and made it a moot point. Combined with Baffert's other four medication violations in the past 13 months, Medina Spirit's failed post-Derby drug test for the steroid betamethasone hasn't yet led to the colt's disqualification but has led to questions about whether he really is an elite racehorse.

After the failed drug test, Derby runner-up Mandaloun took the top spot of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's top 3-year-old poll and Medina Spirit dropped to fourth. Trainer Michael McCarthy hopes Rombauer can be the first non-Baffert horse to win the Preakness and Belmont since Afleet Alex in 2005.

“It’s a strange year,” McCarthy said. “You don’t have a real winner of the Kentucky Derby yet. You don’t know how that plays out, but if someone’s lucky enough to be winning two of the three legs of the Triple Crown, it gives them an awfully big advantage to anybody else, any other 3-year-old at this time of the year.”

Some other things to know about the Belmont:

CONFIDENT COX

Trainer Brad Cox, who could “win” his first Kentucky Derby with Mandaloun if Medina Spirit is disqualified as expected, is optimistic Essential Quality can rebound from a fourth-place finish five weeks ago and make his case in the Belmont. Essential Quality opened as the 2-1 favorite, and rival trainers believe the gray is the horse to beat.

Cox isn't cocky, but he's confident.

“I feel like we’re in a great spot with this colt,” Cox said. “He’s seemed to have won all of his races in different ways. He’s able to set off a hot pace or lay close to the pace or however he’s able to adapt. He’s a racehorse, bottom line.”

EARLY LEADERS?

Jockey Luis Saez might have to adapt while riding Essential Quality because part of the fun and anticipation of the Belmont is no one knows how the 1 1/2-mile race is going to play out. Japan-based France Go de Ina seems incapable of having an uneventful trip to the track and is a wild card, and without Baffert there's no trainer expected to want his horse to go to the lead and set the pace.

Rock Your World is the likeliest candidate to jump out to the lead, and is a chic Belmont pick given his pedigree — as long as he gets a better run than his 17th place Derby result.

"He’s got a lot of natural speed," assistant trainer Juan Leyva said. “I think he’ll like (the distance). He’s a big, lanky colt. I think he’s going to do just fine."

There's also some jockey drama mixed in. Flavien Prat jumped off Rombauer despite winning the Preakness to rejoin Hot Rod Charlie, and Known Agenda's rider is TBD after Irad Ortiz took a nasty spill Thursday.

GOOD RACE DAY

The $1.5 million Belmont is the main event for a terrific day of racing like a heavyweight fight at the end of a stellar undercard. The eight other graded stakes races Saturday at Belmont Park combine to be worth just under $4.5 million.

It's shaping up to be the best day of horse racing until the fall.

“There’s some really high-quality races, almost a Breeders’ Cup preview,” Pletcher said.

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Follow AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhynoHorses

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