By Steve Keating
(Reuters) -Essential Quality atoned for Kentucky Derby disappointment out-duelling Hot Rod Charlie down the home stretch to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, bringing the curtain down on a tumultuous year for U.S. thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
The favorite to win May's Kentucky Derby, Essential Quality came home fourth at Churchill Downs but this time got a perfect ride from jockey Luis Saez.
With Hot Rod Charlie setting the early blistering pace, the big gray pounced at the final turn then battling the front-runner neck-and-neck down the home stretch before pulling away for a length-and-a-half win.
It was the fifth win in six career races for Essential Quality who is owned by Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
Preakness Stakes winner Rombauer was third.
"Today we make the history," said Saez. "In the Kentucky Derby we were so confident that we were going to win that race, he was ready but we had a little unlucky start.
"Today the main thing was to try to break clean, the rest (of the race) I know he was going to do it."
It was the first Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown victory for trainer Rob Cox, who just might end up with two jewels of the Triple Crown if Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit is stripped of its win after testing positive for the banned substance betamethasone.
If Medina Spirit is banned Cox, trained runner up Mandaloun will be declared the Kentucky Derby winner.
While the 1-1/2-mile test featured a quality eight horse field, the talk in the run up was more focused on who would not be in the Belmont Park start gate.
Also absent was Medina Spirits's Hall of Fame trainer Baffert who was slapped with a two-year suspension by Churchill Downs for his role in the positive test. Earlier the New York Racing Association had indefinitely suspended Baffert from its tracks.
The Belmont Stakes win also comes with controversy with owner Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum under scrutiny from human rights groups over charges that the Dubai ruler orchestrated the disappearance of his own daughter.
Rights groups had attempted to have the ruler banned from the Kentucky Derby filing a complaint the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Cox steered clear of the controversy but praised the Sheikh several times for his support and backing.
"Sheikh Mohammed, he’s been supporting us the last two years and this is a world-class organisation," said Cox. "We wouldn’t be here obviously without this horse and his support, so I just wanted to really thank him."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Marguerita Choy)