06/03/2011 2:59PM

Belmont Stakes could decide Eclipse

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It may seem premature by definition even to be thinking about Eclipse Awards during the first week of June, less than halfway through the racing calendar. On the other hand, recent history suggests that a victory by either Animal Kingdom or Shackleford in Saturday’s 142nd Belmont Stakes will come close to cementing the 3-year-old championship for either colt.

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Since 1995, 10 3-year-olds have won two of the three Triple Crown races – Big Brown (2008), Afleet Alex (2005), Smarty Jones (2004), Funny Cide (2003), War Emblem (2002), Point Given (2001), Charismatic (1999), Real Quiet (1998), Silver Charm (1997) and Thunder Gulch (1995) – and every one of them was named the champion 3-year-old colt or gelding at season’s end. Most of them did not win another important race after the second Saturday in June.

Going back to the beginning of the Eclipse Awards in 1972, 21 of the 23 3-year-olds who won two or more Triple Crown races went on to win the divisional title. It took exceptional campaigns to uncrown the other two. In 1972, Riva Ridge won the Derby and Belmont but was overtaken by Key to the Mint, who beat older horses three times while reeling off victories in the Brooklyn, Whitney, Travers and Woodward. In 1994, Tabasco Cat won the Preakness and Belmont but was no match at the polls for Holy Bull, who won the Met Mile, Dwyer, Haskell, Travers and Woodward en route to not only the 3-year-old title but also the Horse of the Year award.

Key to the Mint and Holy Bull are among only six colts in those 40 years to win the 3-year-old title without winning a Triple Crown race. The other four prevailed in years where there were three different winners in Kentucky, Maryland and New York: Tiznow in 2000 (when Fusaichi Pegasus, Red Bullet and Commendable carved up the classics); Skip Away in 1996 (Grindstone, Louis Quatorze, Editor’s Note), Slew o’Gold in 1983 (Sunny’s Halo, Deputed Testamony, Caveat) and Wajima in 1975 (Foolish Pleasure, Master Derby, Avatar).

This year’s rubber match between a Derby winner and Preakness winner, the first such Belmont showdown since Afleet Alex and Giacomo both ran in 2005, is the next best thing to a Triple Crown bid and the most compelling story line in this year’s race. Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are both likeable colts, have plenty of upside with just 6 and 7 career starts respectively, and earned their classic victories on the square. It would in some ways be nice to see one of them assert himself, especially after a stretch in which 17 different horses have won the last 18 Triple Crown races.

Still, a new face in the winner’s circle Saturday could be a good thing for the rest of the racing season, not only opening up the division to a third title claimant and new shooters later on, but also encouraging more showdowns among all the top 3-year-olds over the next five months.

Theme song cuts two ways

In an announcement almost as keenly anticipated as the Belmont itself, the New York Racing Association revealed Friday that the anthem for this year’s race when the horses parade to the post will be “New York, New York,” the 1977 John Kander-Fred Ebb song later popularized by Frank Sinatra. It had been the Belmont’s answer to “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Maryland, My Maryland” from 1997 through 2009, then was replaced last year by “Empire State of Mind,” which many attendees seemed to find unrecognizable and unsingable.

Three cheers for the switch, but I would have preferred an even more retro selection of the 1894 waltz “Sidewalks of New York,” which was the race’s anthem before 1997. Granted, almost nobody knows any of its lyrics besides “East Side, West Side” and “tripped the light fantastic,” but at least it was conceived as a celebration of New York instead of an indictment of the dark side of celebrity and success.

While “New York, New York” is a rousing song, its original ironic intentions have been largely forgotten. Composed for the depressing and moody 1977 Martin Scorsese movie of the same name, it bordered on parody and was mocking the notion that New York City is the center of the universe where cutthroat success conquers all. The lyrics “top of the heap” – a phrase that Sinatra often replaced in concert with “A-number-one” – were deliberately chosen to suggest clawing one’s way to the top of a mound of garbage.