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Five storylines to watch for the 2021 Belmont Stakes

If Medina Spirit had won the Preakness, we’d be neck deep in a wild and uncomfortable run-up to the third leg of the 2021 Triple Crown series.

What would it mean to have a horse challenging for the sport’s greatest achievement under the cloud of a failed drug test that could wipe the whole thing out? Would the New York Racing Association have suspended trainer Bob Baffert — as it did the Monday after the Preakness — if Medina Spirit’s Triple Crown bid was alive? Would Baffert and Medina Spirit’s owners have mounted a legal challenge to get their horse in the Belmont Stakes?

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All of these questions were on the table as Medina Spirit led for the first three quarters of a mile at Pimlico Race Course. Then, an overlooked little colt named Rombauer came rushing up on the Kentucky Derby champion’s outside flank and rendered them moot.

With Medina Spirit defeated, we head to New York for a quieter final chapter of the Triple Crown. In the absence of a historic quest or a defining drug controversy, the June 5 Belmont Stakes will be “just a race” between some of the most gifted 3-year-old thoroughbreds in the country. Here are five storylines to watch:

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Can Rombauer do it again?

With his victory in Baltimore, Rombauer vaulted from off the board to the No. 1 spot in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s top 3-year-old poll.

Trainer Michael McCarthy believed he had it in him. McCarthy argued fervently for entering Rombauer in the Kentucky Derby, only to be overruled by owners John and Diane Fradkin. Even after winning the Preakness, McCarthy seemed bothered that the late-charging bay colt did not get his shot in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Rombauer can’t reverse history, but if he wins in New York, he can assert himself as the best 3-year-old in this class and add steam to his appealing underdog story. McCarthy, a longtime assistant to Todd Pletcher, had never saddled a horse for a Triple Crown race before the Preakness. The Fradkins, meanwhile, only brought Rombauer to the Triple Crown series because they could not sell him last year.

To keep this narrative rolling, Rombauer will have to contend with the 1 ½-mile endurance test posed by the Belmont Stakes and with a field tougher than the one he faced in the Preakness. He’ll face Essential Quality, who beat him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Blue Grass Stakes, and Hot Rod Charlie, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby. He’ll try to win with a new jockey, John Velazquez, after Preakness winner Flavien Prat defected back to Hot Rod Charlie.

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Such obstacles aside, McCarthy said Rombauer could actually be better in the Belmont. “When he hit the finish line in Baltimore,” he said, “he did not look like a tiring horse to me.”

John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit, right, leads Florent Geroux on Mandaloun, Flavien Prat riding Hot Rod Charlie and Luis Saez on Essential Quality to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit, right, leads Florent Geroux on Mandaloun, Flavien Prat riding Hot Rod Charlie and Luis Saez on Essential Quality to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Can Essential Quality show the Kentucky Derby was an anomaly?

An early bump and a wide trip undid the Brad Cox-trained colt at Churchill Downs, but we can’t forget he was undefeated and a worthy favorite going into the race.

Essential Quality still has the best overall record of the horses in the Belmont field. He’s beaten the other top contenders, including Rombauer. That doesn’t guarantee anything as this 3-year-old class prepares to pivot from the Triple Crown series to summer stakes races and the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. Perhaps Essential Quality matured quickly and has already run his best races. We’ve seen it happen to plenty of past 2-year-old champions.

It’s also possible that the Derby just did not break his way and he’ll retake his throne in New York. Cox said Essential Quality has “moved forward physically” since the Derby. He doesn’t foresee the Belmont distance as a problem, given the way the colt has always galloped out of his workouts and races.

Essential Quality has never given a bad effort. His trainer won the Eclipse Award as the best in North America last year. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.

John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit leads Florent Geroux on Mandaloun and Flavien Prat riding Hot Rod Charlie to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit leads Florent Geroux on Mandaloun and Flavien Prat riding Hot Rod Charlie to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Is Hot Rod Charlie the real Derby returner to be reckoned with?

The Doug O’Neill-trained colt outran Essential Quality at Churchill Downs, with Prat saying he ran “great.” The two horses that beat him in the Derby won’t be in the Belmont. This makes a tidy case for why he might be favored.

It’s not as if Hot Rod Charlie’s performance was a fluke. He resoundingly won the Louisiana Derby and finished a tough second to Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Plenty of smart analysts thought he’d win the Derby.

O’Neill did not even flirt with taking Hot Rod Charlie to the Preakness. His mind was on the Belmont, which tells us he likes the setup for his horse. O’Neill said he expects Hot Rod Charlie to relax early and find a comfortable rhythm, a “mature” approach he sees as key to handling the unfamiliar distance.

Rock Your World runs on the track during training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 29, 2021 in Louisville, Ky.
Rock Your World runs on the track during training for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 29, 2021 in Louisville, Ky. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Are we forgetting Rock Your World too easily?

The same rough Derby traffic that hampered Essential Quality undid Rock Your World completely. “It was pretty much over after the break,” jockey Joel Rosario lamented after a 17th-place finish.

Recall, however, that Rock Your World’s front-running victory in the Santa Anita Derby was perhaps the most impressive performance we saw in any of the Derby preps. He put Medina Spirit away with ease. There is brilliance in this John Sadler-trained colt, who began his career with two victories on turf. He just never showed it at Churchill Downs.

Sadler liked what he saw from Rock Your World’s first post-Derby workout in California and wants to give the colt a chance to “right the ship.” For fans who simply want to see a physically gifted horse strive to reach his potential on a big stage, this is the one to watch June 5.

Can anything that happens at Belmont Park change the legacy of the 2021 Triple Crown series?

It’s hard to imagine what might drive away the cloud lingering from Medina Spirit’s post-Derby positive for the anti-inflammatory drug betamethasone.

The Belmont Stakes is a lucrative race with a very good field, but it’s already facing an uphill battle for attention with no Triple Crown on the line. Add to that the prospects of a Derby disqualification and substantial punishment for Baffert, the sport’s most famous figure, and the incline becomes that much steeper.

Between deadly clusters of breakdowns at prominent tracks and ongoing battles over race-day medication, this sport has been running toward a reckoning for years. Baffert’s latest drug saga, which could cost him Derby victory No. 7, added rocket fuel to said movement.

With Medina Spirit out of the Belmont field, doping talk might not dominate as it did in the days before the Preakness. But when we look back on this Triple Crown series, the races — no matter how competitive — will probably be secondary.

Triple Crown series

BELMONT STAKES

June 5, post time 6:47 p.m.

TV: NBC (Chs. 11, 4)

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