NEW YORK (AP) — After Flavien Prat rode Hot Rod Charlie in the Kentucky Derby, he committed ride him again at the Belmont Stakes.
Trainer Doug O'Neill called Prat's agent multiple times since to double check. When Prat won the Preakness aboard Rombauer, O'Neill made another call to triple check and was told once again the jockey would return to Hot Rod Charlie.
It’s the first time in 12 years a jockey chose not to ride the horse he won a Triple Crown race with in the next leg of the series.
“His agent never wavered,” O'Neill said. “The way Rombauer won, believe me, it’s human nature to be like, ‘Geez, how do we take off the Preakness horse for a horse that didn’t win the Derby?' I think that’s a credit to Charlie and what Flavien thinks about Charlie.”
O'Neill chalks it up to loyalty, while Rombauer trainer Michael McCarthy called it a “non-issue.” All McCarthy did was add two-time Belmont-winning Hall of Famer John Velazquez to ride Rombauer.
“Obviously you win a Classic, you expect to kind of put the same team on the floor that got you there,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “That’s the horse they choose. I was aware of that right after the Preakness. We’re fine where we’re at.”
Prat's agent, Brad Pegram, didn't respond to a message seeking comment about the situation. The most recent example of a jockey switching like this was Calvin Borel in 2009, when he picked filly Rachel Alexandra over Kentucky Derby champion Mine That Bird — and won the Preakness with her.
“I was taken off horses after a Classic win but I don’t remember ever having that difficult a decision," said retired jockey Jerry Bailey, now an analyst at NBC Sports. “That’s a tough call.”
Favorite Essential Quality took to the track at Belmont Park for the first time Wednesday morning, jogging just under the 1 1/2-mile distance he's set to run in the race. Trainer Brad Cox said he heard “everything that you want to hear” from assistant Dustin Dugas who rode Essential Quality in the workout.
“He seemed to get over the ground pretty well,” Cox said. “He said he was very, very smooth.”
Essential Quality went off as the Derby favorite and finished fourth after a difficult trip. He opened as the 2-1 favorite in the field of eight for the Belmont.
If France Go de Ina pulls off a major upset in the Belmont, his owner, trainer and staff would cash in on a $1 million bonus from the New York Racing Association for any horse from Japan that wins the race. The Kentucky-bred colt who's based in Japan missed the Derby and finished sixth in the Preakness.
"They were hoping originally to go to the Kentucky Derby from there, but that was impossible,” exercise rider and traveling assistant Masaki Tanako said through an interpreter. "Being nominated for the Triple Crown, you’re able to give it a good go for the other two. We figured we might as well take advantage of the other two nominations.”
Beyond the $1 million bonus, France Go de Ina is running for his owner and trainer's home country that's in a state of emergency because of the pandemic.
“In Japan, winning abroad is always a big thing kind of carrying that Team Japan spirit,” Tanako said. “With everything going on in Japan with the coronavirus right now, being able to come back with a big win like this would probably be very uplifting.”
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