The Belmont Stakes, the 1 1/2-mile “Test of the Champion” is set for Saturday and will wrap up the Triple Crown run that started nearly five weeks ago with Animal Kingdom’s surprise romp in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
The Belmont is truly an American classic and is contested at a distance that is used so seldom in speed-happy American racing that it is nearly an anachronism. But the Belmont is a yearly reminder of American racing as it used to be, and it is a fitting conclusion to the Triple Crown series that started with a 19-horse field in Louisville running a mile and a quarter and then moved on to Baltimore, where the Preakness was run over a mile and three-sixteenths at Pimlico.
A long stretch
Now, three weeks later, comes the Belmont Stakes at a distance that is a quarter mile longer than the Kentucky Derby. For perspective, that’s the length of the famed homestretch at Churchill Downs.
It is, without question, a difficult and unusual race. But, then again, so is the Kentucky Derby.
In recent years, some in racing have called for a reduction in distances for the Triple Crown races and an expansion of the five-week period that covers the trio of classics. While it has been 33 years since Affirmed became the 11th and most recent 3-year-old Thoroughbred to sweep the Triple Crown races, the gap does not identify the Crown as an unattainable goal.
It is indicative of a difficult process – one that takes a special horse to carry it off. There were three Triple Crown winners in the 1970’s in Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed – and there should have been a fourth in Spectacular Bid, who fell short in the Belmont Stakes. But remember that there was a 25-year gap between Citation’s Triple Crown in 1948 and Secetariat’s now-mythic sweep in 1973.
Worth waiting for
Big Red’s romp, along with the sweeps by Seattle Slew and Affirmed, were worth waiting for. That will be the case when we end our ongoing Triple Crown drought, and that frustrating string will be snapped.
But it will take a special horse to do it, just like the previous 11 Triple Crown winners. Each was a truly remarkable horse in his way, and those special talents enabled those horses to accomplish something distinctive and spectacular.
A Triple Crown should be celebrated for the remarkable achievement it is. Dumbing-down the series would only serve to cheapen it and give the non-racing public another reason to ignore Thoroughbred racing.
Acknowledging that I’ve already proclaimed that Spectacular Bid should have been a Triple Crown winner in 1979, how many other horses truly loomed as talents that could, with some luck, have completed the sweep since 1980?
3 what ifs
If the conversation is limited to horses that actually participated in Triple Crown races, there are three that spring to my mind as “what if?” horses:
A.P. Indy (1992) – Scratched on the morning of the Kentucky Derby because of a foot bruise, Neil Drysdale’s colt ran only in the Belmont Stakes five weeks later. But he ended his 3-year-old campaign with a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and one wonders what he might have achieved in the three-race series with a healthy foot.
Point Given (2001) – He thoroughly dominated the Preakness and Belmont Stakes for trainer Bob Baffert, but was never in the hunt in the Derby. He went on to win Horse of the Year honors and was clearly the best of his crop, but joined a long line of great horses that faltered on Derby Day. This Derby – and I can name a long string of others – provides evidence that the most difficult and the toughest of the legs of the Triple Crown is the first one, not the final jewel.
Empire Maker (2003) – The late Bobby Frankel’s best chance to saddle a Derby winner was done in by a nagging foot problem just before the race and a considerable dose of Derby magic for the New York high school buddies who campaigned Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. Yes, the latter won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but it was no contest on Belmont Day when Empire Maker was ready for his best. I’ll always love the Funny Cide story and it’s one of my favorite Derbies, but I will always regard Empire Maker as one of the Derby’s unluckiest losers and horse that, with some luck, might have won a Triple Crown.
Saturday’s 142nd Belmont will be a rubber match between Animal Kingdom and Preakness king Shackleford, who finished fourth in the Derby but held off the Derby winner in the Preakness.
It appears there will be a full gate of 14 for the Belmont, but to me it comes down to four horses, all of which ran in the Derby: Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, Nehro and Master of Hounds.
The advantage goes to Shackleford, whose natural speed and running style fit the race that is, more often than not, a front-runner’s or stalker’s race. His long, loping stride seems perfectly suited to Belmont, a surface he might actually like better than his home course at Churchill Downs.
Animal Kingdom worked well over the surface this week, but will his turf-oriented pedigree allow him to fare as well over Belmont’s “Big Sandy” course as Churchill’s dirt, which is very kind to grass and synthetic track horses. Nehro turned in a terrific work before leaving Louisville and Master of Hounds ran a deceptively good Derby in just his second start since early November. The Irish import could be the upsetter here.
In this corner, make the Belmont: Shackleford, Animal Kingdom, Master of Hounds, Nehro.