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Belmont or Bust!

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THERE'S NOTHING LIKE THE BELMONT!
 
We'll be making the trek back to New York for the Belmont Stakes on June 7. After all, we've been there for the last three chances (Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, and Big Brown in 2008) horses have had at the Triple Crown. S2o we owe it to California Chrome to see if he can achieve what those three champions and countless others couldn't.

For us, the electricity at Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line is like no other sporting event we have witnessed in person. And we've seen plenty, from Super Bowls to Rose Bowls and the Kentucky Derby.

And if they can call the Kentucky Derby the most exciting 2 minutes in sports, they can call the Belmont the most exciting two-and-a-half minutes in sports.

Unlike the Kentucky Derby, where average race fans have almost no chance to show up on Derby Day at Churchill Downs and actually see the race, or Pimlico, where getting a view of the Preakness is almost impossible unless you can squeeze into the apron or get one of those hard-to-find seats in the grandstand, the Belmont really is a people's event. Anyone can attend, no reservations required (although they're suggested if you actually want a seat in the expansive grandstand).

Belmont's grand size has something to do with it. The big track can easily accommodate crowds over 100,000 without having to funnel fans into the infield (indeed, there is no infield seating, or standing, at Belmont). Moreover, when we say anyone can show up and see the race, we mean it; very affordable grandstand ticket sales the day of the race actually get patrons onto the apron, where if they can find a spot or otherwise crane their necks, they can watch the Belmont unfold right in front of their eyes. By spending a few more bucks, any fan can get into the Club House on Belmont Day and get a view closer to the finish line in a bit more comfy (but still crowded) surroundings. Showing up on race day for the Derby or Preakness might allow a fan to get on to the grounds, but not out to the apron to actually watch the race.

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And though some have romanticized about the "infield experience" at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, we have long felt that spectacle is overrated; it often regresses into one more reminiscent of NASCAR events than a horse race, which is one reason Pimlico has stopped allowing patrons to being in their own beer for the Preakness. But we don't have to worry about that at Belmont, because the infield retains its dignity (meaning no patrons) at all times.

Moreover, transportation to the track is a snap via the Long Island Railroad; there's no reason to brave the Long Island Expressway with your car. Trains drop you off right at Belmont Park's own station, and plenty of extra trains are running from Penn Station on Belmont day. In the past, that's been the way to go on our trips up from Washington and Philadelphia; we'll just leave our car at the Metropark station off the Garden State Parkway, take an NJ Transit train into Manhattan, then switch to the LIRR at Penn Station. Convenient, somewhat comfortable, and without the sort of massive headaches associated with parking in Louisville for Derby Day, or in Baltimore for the Preakness, especially since there's no significant parking available at Pimlico even on a day without a big crowd.

Belmont Park, however, is almost palatial, a racing facility that wreaks of elegance and grandeur. When reconstruction was finished in 1968, Belmont Park became a real jewel in the horse racing world, and it still is today. It's also probably the last "mega-track" we'll see built in our lifetimes; facilities built since, such as the Texas tracks in Dallas-Fort Worth (Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie) and Houston (Sam Houston Park), have no use for such expansive grandstand seating. Indeed, the "new Belmont" (although even it is now 46 years old) will probably live on as the last great race track built in the States for a long, long time.

We remember plenty of exciting Belmonts where no Triple Crown was at stake, although we have to admit that there is something special about being out on Long Island when there's a chance a horse can complete the trick.

As mentioned before, We've been there for the last three tries (Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in '04, and Big Brown in 2008), and can say that the excitement and anticipation before those races exceeded that of any other sports events we've seen in person during our lifetime, including Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, and various other championship games.

The New York flavor permeates the track; we recall getting a kick out of seeing the Giants' Michael Strahan mingling with the masses on Smarty Jones' try at the Crown in 2004, and noticed how Jimmy Fallon was enjoying himself tremendously when hanging out with the crowd when Big Brown tried and failed to win the Triple Crown in 2008. And who couldn't notice Bo Derek (left) as she watched Big Brown in 2008, either. Other prominent New Yorkers make sure to be in attendance as well. In fact, we've been so enthralled by our Belmont experiences that when we are asked what are the top sports events someone should see in their lifetime, the Belmont, when a Triple Crown is at stake, now tops our list.

Indeed, the drama and allure of the Belmont is probably best exemplified not when the Secretariats and Seattle Slews and Affirmeds won the Triple Crown, but rather when all of the great horses have tried and failed. Follow along.

In the half-century that I've been following the sport, I've seen 19 horses try to win the Triple Crown. Only three of them, in a 5-year span in the mid '70s (Secretariat in '73, Seattle Slew in '77, Affirmed in '78), turned the trick. Almost all of those who came into the Belmont looked a good bet to win, just as Big Brown did in 2008, the last time a Triple Crown was on the line at the Belmont.

Those favored horses from the past included Spectacular Bid.

Veteran racegoers all roll their eyes when the name Spectacular Bid (right) pops up. This was a magnificent thoroughbred. Ask a lot of knowledgeable railbirds about who was the better horse between the Bid and Secretariat, and you'd be surprised at how many would opt for the Bid.

But he couldn't win the Belmont.

The year was 1979, and for all the world it looked as if we were going to have back-to-back-to-back Triple Crown winners. Seattle Slew was unbeaten when he turned the trick two years earlier, and Affirmed had proven, if nothing else, that he was as gallant as any thoroughbred champ when he outdueled Alydar in all three legs the year before. Neither, however, looked like Spectacular Bid when winning the first two legs of Crown. The Bid, dominant at the Derby and Preakness, would go off at 1/5 in New York, shorter odds than those on Big Brown in 2008 or any of the other Triple Crown hopefuls in recent Belmonts.

The Bid was Dr. Fager-like good, one of those etched indelibly in the minds of any racing enthusiast who ever saw him run. And he looked like he would put the Belmont into his satchel, too, especially turning for home 30 years ago, leading the field. But that final eighth can be a bear, and the Bid, who, like any three-year-old at this stage had never had to run this mile-and-a-half distance, began to waver. Jockey Ronnie Franklin hit the accelerator a bit too soon on the Bid, down the backstretch, and even though he looked clear at the top of the stretch, Franklin had asked for too much, too soon. Suddenly, William Haggin Perry's colt, Coastal, rolled up on the outside, and, to the astonishment of the crowd, went past the Bid in the final sixteenth. Coastal won; the Bid faded to third.

Had there never been a horse named "Upset" to deal Man 'o War his only loss, we might have instead had the word "coastal" instead of "upset" referring to that surprise-defeat term. But indeed, Spectacular Bid had lost. And though trainer Bud Delp lamented at the time that the Bid had stepped on a pin that morning and hurt his foot, most racegoers chalked that down to sour grapes on Delp's part. In the Belmont, The Bid had looked very much like a champ for 1 1/4 miles, 1 3/8 miles, even 1 7/16...but not at a mile-and-a-half.

The pin didn't beat Spectacular Bid. The Belmont did.

Like it has for a lot of great horses over the past 40-odd years. It has now been 36 years since Steve Cauthen and Affirmed (left) fought off Alydar in the stretch to win the '78 Belmont and become the last Triple Crown winner, and when the late, great race caller Chic Anderson, in his last Belmont, told viewers that "We'll test these two to the wire!" But in that span (since 1964), as mentioned above, 19 horses have won the first two legs of the Crown. Sixteen of those, including some truly great runners, have failed. We can remember back to 1964, when the great Canadian champ, Northern Dancer, destined to become the sire of all sires, won the first two legs, seeing off the classy Hill Rise in a grueling Kentucky Derby, then winning more handily at the Preakness. On to the Belmont Stakes, which, for a short span between 1963-67, was run at nearby Aqueduct, while the Belmont facility was rebuilt. An odd sight it was, those Belmonts at Aqueduct, where the race started at the head of the far turn at that 1 1/8-mile oval. And Northern Dancer, under Bill Hartack, was looking awfully good for a mile and-a-quarter in that '64 Belmont, and seemed poised at the head of the stretch to add the final leg of the Crown to his collection. But Hartack could not find another gear, where Roman Brother and eventual winner Quadrangle could.

It was much the same two years later, when Kauai King, a Native Dancer colt under the savvy Don Brumfield, won the first two legs and was ready to become the first since Citation in '48 to win the Crown. Amberoid, however, had other plans that afternoon at Aqueduct, and we would have to wait a bit longer for another Triple Crown winner.

Racing aficionados still cringe at what might have been when the Belmont Stakes returned to the refurbished and rebuilt Belmont Park in 1968...an asterisk Triple Crown winner! That's because Calumet's Forward Pass had been "awarded" the Kentucky Derby win two days after finishing second in Louisville when Dancer's Image (another Native Dancer colt) had been disqualified after traces of bute were found in his post-race urine sample.

That controversy was one of the biggest in sports in a very controversial year. The bute, reportedly administered by legendary Churchill Downs track vet Dr. Alex Harthill the week before the race, should have flushed out of the Dancer's system in the intervening 152 hours (long before, in fact), but traces were found in the post-race sample. (Bute was legal at most North American tracks in '68, and had been legal the year before and year after in Kentucky, but not '68). Eventually, it took several trips through the courts before the fiasco was settled years later, and Forward Pass' name stayed in the record books as the "official" winner. Insiders have since told us that track officials were going to overlook the test and resultant controversy until Wathen Knebelkamp, then Churchill Downs' president, quickly went to the press with the news. The two weeks until the Preakness became quite a media circus, with Forward Pass now the winner (although it wouldn't become official for years and several trips to the courts).

As it was, the big, powerful Calumet charge went into Baltimore as the Derby winner, then romped home in the Preakness in Big Brown-like fashion, and the thought of the asterisk Triple Crown winner became very real. It was then off to Belmont Park, where the newly-refurbished, palatial facility welcomed back the Belmont Stakes that June 1. And for an awfully long time it looked like Forward Pass was in position to win, leading into mid-stretch, before local favorite Stage Door Johnny (right), under Heliodoro Gustines, found another gear and had just enough time to make a late charge, collaring Forward Pass in the last sixteenth and winning by less than a length. Racing enthusiasts sighed in relief, as there would indeed be no asterisk Triple Crown winner. But we still hadn't had a Crown winner since 1948.

Enter 1969, and that all seemed to change with Majestic Prince, under the irascible Hartack and trained by the legendary ex-jockey Johnny Longden (who won the Triple Crown in '43 with Count Fleet). Majestic Prince, for a time, was Secretariat before Secretariat. He was aptly-named and certainly looked the part of a Triple Crown winner, a big chestnut who prepped in California, and, undefeated, saw off the talented Arts & Letters in bruising Derby and Preakness stretch drives. This would be the one to win the Crown, or so many thought until Longden announced that he didn't want the Prince to run in the Belmont. He didn't like the way he came out of the Preakness, and thought the mile and a half was too much for the colt. Canadian owner Frank McMahon had other ideas, however; the Prince would run in New York.

But "The Pumper" proved prophetic. For a time, many blamed Hartack for the Prince's Belmont failure, allowing the pace to unfold snail-like (:26 first quarter!) instead of dictating the pace in a race that was there for him to take on a silver platter. Instead, it set up perfectly for Arts & Letters, under Braulio Baeza, to win handily.

Longden was right; the Prince wasn't ready for the Belmont. He was injured in the race and never ran again. The Belmont had claimed another would-be Triple Crown winner.

Except for that brief patch in the mid '70s, far more Belmont Triple Crown failures than successes ensued in the next four decades. South American Canonero II was the rage after romping in the Derby and Preakness in 1971. But he came a cropper in the Belmont, failing to fire at the top of the stretch while a longshot named Pass Catcher ran away and eventually held off the charging Jim French at the wire. A classy Pleasant Colony looked the part of a Crown winner in 1981, but finished 3rd to Summing in his try at the Belmont. Alysheba took his stab in 1987, but was outrun by Bet Twice and two others in New York. And then there was Sunday Silence, who had an Affirmed-Alydar type duel going with Easy Goer in '89 after narrowly winning the first two legs of the Crown. Only Sunday Silence wasn't Affirmed-like in the Belmont, Easy Goer romping home.

The last seventeen years have seen seven horses fail to win the Belmont after clearing the first two Triple Crown hurdles. The great Silver Charm, owned by Bob & Bev Lewis and ridden by Gary Stevens, looked worthy-enough in '97, and, after finally putting away nemesis Free House in deep stretch in New York, looked like a Crown winner. Except that the wily Chris McCarron had wheeled Touch Gold on the far outside, out of Silver Charm's view, and slipped past the grey horse to win narrowly in the last 50 yards.

That was little drama compared to 1998, however, when Mike Pegram's Real Quiet, trained by Bob Baffert, after impressive wins vs. good fields at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, was suddenly three lengths clear mid-stretch at the Belmont, cruising home, seemingly, under a giddy Kent Desormeaux. Only that Stevens would get his Belmont revenge, thrown back in the saddle by a violent stretch charge from his mount, Victory Gallop, who nailed Real Quiet at the wire (right). It was as close as a horse could come to winning the Crown, and not getting it. Would we ever see another Crown winner, some had to wonder?

Forward to 1999, when another Lewis horse, Charismatic, looked ready to nail the Crown after winning the first two legs. The Belmont proved too much, however, and the valiant colt faded late, broke down, and lost to Lemon Drop Kid. More of the same frustration a few years later, as first War Emblem, looking every bit Smarty Jones-like in winning the Derby and Preakness in '02, failed badly at the Belmont, a distant 8th behind winner Sarava. In 2003, New York was a dither with home-state bred gelding Funny Cide on the cusp of the Triple Crown, looking awfully hard to beat, too, after his Preakness win. But Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted wore down Jose Santos' mount in the stretch.

Then, Smarty Jones appeared a near shoe-in the next year in '04, with his contingent of vocal supporters having made the short trip up I-95 from Philadelphia and the rest of the Delaware Valley to cheer him on. But Smarty Jones found that last eighth of a mile a furlong too far. Birdstone, with Edgar Prado up, collared Smarty in the stretch. Again, we would have to wait, and after Big Brown's failure in 2008, when he pulled up on the far turn and Da'Tara romped home, the drought between Triple Crown winners had reached an all-time dry patch. Indeed, after Funny Cide failed in 2003, we exceeded the gap of 25 years between Citation (in '48) and Secretariat. This year marks 36 since Affirmed fought off Alydar and last turned the trick.

A reminder of how difficult it really is to win the Triple Crown is how many other great horses have tried and failed at the Belmont. Rare is the year when everything goes right for a horse in the Triple Crown quest, as it did for Secretariat in '73. That year, Secretariat had no real serious, Arts & Letters, Alydar, or Easy Goer-like challengers. The tracks rolled their surfaces hard in hopes of record-breaking runs. And the weather came up good for Secretariat, too, unlike stable-mate Riva Ridge the previous year (whose Crown bid ended at a muddy Preakness vs. longshot Bee Bee Bee), or the great Damascus in '67, whose Derby was ruined by an off-track (and a loss to Proud Clarion).

Remember, a lot of big names have only won two legs of the crown, 48 of them, in fact, compared to just 11 who pulled the hat-trick and won all three. Besides Damascus and Riva Ridge, other equine notables like Native Dancer, Nashua, and even Man O'War (who didn't run in the Derby), and dozens of others, only won two legs of the Triple Crown.

But as California Chrome might discover on Long Island, the Belmont can be a tough hurdle for even the greatest horses to overcome.

Like Spectacular Bid.


  
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Mike covers the New York racing circuit (Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga) year round as well as Keeneland, Churchill Downs, the Triple Crown, and the Breeders’ Cup.
Last Year Mike had a solid Triple Crown, correctly picking the winning horse in 2 of 3 races. He selected I'll Have another to win The Preakness, and nailed Union Rags to win the Belmont Stakes as his top pick.

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