It happened Saturday at 6:52 p.m. EDT. That was when Thoroughbred horse racing woke up from its five-week nightmare.
It was the precise moment when Essential Quality, bet down to a 6-5 favorite, prevailed in a thrilling fight to the finish against 4-1 second choice Hot Rod Charlie to win the Belmont Stakes.
“I think he showed today he met the Test of the Champion,” said Jimmy Bell, the president of Essential Quality’s owner, Godolphin USA. “He has never run a bad race in his life.”
“It was such a great stretch duel,” said Doug O’Neill, trainer of the runner-up Hot Rod Charlie. “He ran against the 2-year-old champ. The heart in this horse is unbelievable.”
A wonderful moment featuring a 2020 Eclipse Award winner and the upstart horse that keeps proving he belongs in the same company.
But you would not believe the nightmare. It started when the most recognizable human face in racing – he kind of looks like Bob Baffert – found himself on the verge of losing the seventh Kentucky Derby trophy that he just won. Something about a drug test for betamethasomethingsomething. And picograms.
That was after some horse named, what was it, Celebrity Spirit? Blythe Spirit? Oh, that’s right. Medina Spirit. He backed into the Derby, and then he won it. A 12-1 shot. That doesn’t happen in real life.
Then while the citizens were surrounding that Spirit horse and that Baffert-looking fellow with their pitchforks and their torches, some horse named for a California winemaker won the Preakness. An 11-1 shot. That doesn’t happen in real life, either.
While that was going on, the Baffert apparition hired two lawyers to protect his trophy while was told he was not welcome to come to New York because of that beta thing. Lawyers. Nightmares. Straight lines for $1,200, Mayim.
It turned into such a distraction. The noise kept getting louder and louder and louder.
And then racing finally woke up. In that cold sweat.
Back to reality. Essential Quality delivered as the favorited Saturday. This was the script that racing was supposed to follow five weeks ago, when he was the favorite at Churchill Downs. If only he and Rock Your World had not run into each other coming out of the gate at Louisville. If only he and Rock Your World had not been drawn next to each other. That was when this whole nightmare really began.
Essential Quality was supposed to win the Derby, right? He might have if not for the start. And for the merry-go-round nature of the Derby finish, where the horses that were 1-2-3-4 at the top of the stretch finished 1-2-3-4 in the same order. They might as well have made the Derby a two-turn mile.
Who knows how the Preakness and Belmont were really supposed to turn out? It was like that Gwyneth Paltrow movie “Sliding Doors,” where she missed a train, and her life went on. But the movie simultaneously rewound itself to show what would have happened if she had not missed the train.
Maybe Essential Quality would have won the Preakness. Or maybe his stablemate Mandaloun would have. And then one of them would have been going for and winning the Triple Crown. Or not. And maybe their young trainer Brad Cox would have been celebrated as the new face of racing. Hell, maybe he will anyway.
The what-might-have-beens this year are maddening. There will be that declaration that this will sort itself out in the second half of the year. But that kicks to the curb the Triple Crown trail already blazed. Make that torched.
The three classics this year told us nothing, much as they did not last year when COVID flipped the schedule upside-down. Or the year before when three stewards in Kentucky decided to disqualify the Derby winner.
Do we have any clue which horse is the best 3-year-old in the country? How about the best in the Cox barn between Mandaloun, the horse that stands to be promoted to the Derby winner in the nightmare, and Essential Quality, the one that was supposed to win the Triple Crown?
“They’re both very good colts,” Cox said. “The body of work that (Essential Quality) has done and the numbers he’s received and the way he’s stepped up and been so consistent. I think he’s the champion right now.”
For bettors, there is an unrequited feeling. Anyone who got lucky enough to back Medina-Blythe-Celebrity Spirit or the Rombauer Vineyards during the nightmare might disagree. A win is a win is a win, right?
For the third year in a row the Triple Crown races were won by three different horses. That means 10 different names going back to Justify in 2018 have headlined the stories about the American classics. It is not the stuff on which racing can build stars.
Whatever happened to Tiz The Law and Country House and Sir Winston and War Of Will? Why is it Swiss Skydiver is here one minute and gone the next? And since the nightmare is still fresh in our minds, what do we make of Authentic? And Justify?
All these questions come to mind when we try to figure out how that nightmare got in our heads in the first place. When someone has that answer, let me know. Or better yet, put it on social media. Yeah, social media. Speaking of nightmares ...
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. It is posted more frequently during coverage of big races like the Belmont Stakes. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. Every episode of the RFRP is available via free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.