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ELMONT, N.Y. – Favored Essential Quality took the lead at the top of the stretch and outdueled Hot Rod Charlie to win the 153rd running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, defeating a field of eight horses in the final leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

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Preakness winner Rombauer finished third.

The race, contested on a sunny day at Belmont Park, was held before a limited crowd of about 11,000 people. The announced crowd for the Kentucky Derby on May 1 was 51,838, while attendance at the Preakness two weeks later was capped at 10,000.

Essential Quality, which was a 6-5 favorite at post time for Saturday’s race, was ridden by Luis Saez and trained by Brad Cox. The gray colt had been the Kentucky Derby favorite but finished fourth at Churchill Downs. Essential Quality was bumped at the gate, ran wide around both turns and lost for the first time in six starts as a 3-year-old, the Times reported.

Saturday’s victory was the colt’s sixth in seven career starts and gave Cox his first Triple Crown win.

Hot Rod Charlie set the pace, but Essential Quality grabbed the lead on the final turn and held on for the victory to avenge the only loss of his 3-year-old career.

It was a return to normal for the Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles the longest of the three Triple Crown races. Last year, Tiz the Law won the race at 1 1/8 miles, according to The New York Times. The 2020 race was held as the first leg of the Triple Crown for the first time.

Last year’s lineup of races included the Belmont in June, followed by the Kentucky Derby in September and the Preakness in October. None of the races allowed spectators, the newspaper reported.

While there was no Triple Crown winner for the third consecutive year, there was plenty of intrigue leading up to the race. Much of it swirled around a horse that was not even entered in the race.

Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby on May 1 but tested positive for betamethasone, a corticosteroid, after winning at Churchill Downs. The horse also finished third in the Preakness while a second sample was tested, according to Times. On Wednesday, Medina Spirit tested positive again for betamethasone.

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Medina Spirit could become the second winner in the 147-year history of the Derby to be disqualified because of a failed drug test. Maximum Security was disqualified in 2019, the Times reported.

According to ESPN, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission — and not Churchill Downs — will make the final call on whether Medina Spirit is disqualified.

The failed drug test led to the two-year suspension of the colt’s trainer, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, by the company that owns Churchill Downs, CNN reported. Last month, the New York Racing Association temporarily suspended Baffert from entering any horses at Belmont Park, the Times reported. Medina Spirit’s victory at the Derby was a record seventh for Baffert.

>> Derby winner Medina Spirit’s positive drug test confirmed, trainer suspended

Saturday’s race was run without jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., who suffered an injury when he was thrown off his horse during a race Thursday at Belmont Park, according to The Associated Press. Although he was trampled by the horse ridden by his younger brother, Jose Ortiz, Irad Ortiz Jr. escaped serious injury, according to the AP. Irad Ortiz Jr. had been scheduled to ride Known Agenda; his brother took his place.