06/05/2013 2:13PM

Jay Hovdey: No Triple Crown hopeful doesn't mean no drama

Mike Marten
Editor's Note wins the 1996 Belmont, which brought plenty of excitement even though a Triple Crown wasn't on the line.

There is a legitimate fear that without a Triple Crown on the line the 145th Belmont Stakes will be run Saturday at Belmont Park in a spirit of such widespread ennui that the names of Derby winner Orb and Preakness winner Oxbow by now hardly ring a bell. Oh well.

The Belmont perennially wins the prize as America’s most schizophrenic horse race. It can mean so much, or so little, depending entirely upon the turn of events in two other cities – one of which does not even have a major-league sports franchise – in the month leading up to New York’s most famous horse race.

Consider the events of 2012, when three weeks of foreplay ended in wholesale cold showers after Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another sprang a leak and had to scratch from the Belmont on the day before his Date With Destiny.

It was as if the ... world ... had ... ended. Fair weather fans who did not know a Triple Crown from an iron lung suddenly cared more than words could express. Nothing should be subjected to such a delirious standard of expectations, and certainly not a horse race.

Yet the dynamics are simple to understand. Anticipation sells a lot more tickets than mere appreciation of the breed, and few can resist the heady lure of being able to say, “I was there,” wherever there may be.

[BELMONT STAKES: Live updates and video from Belmont Park]

Still, it is a shame so much can be lost in translation getting from point Derby to point Belmont. And what a waste it is for a race like the Kentucky Derby to be larded with so much public adoration, no matter who shows up or how they run, while the scrutiny imposed upon the Belmont Stakes picks at the tiniest flaws in make-up, nails, and hair.

In fact, if there is any American Thoroughbred contest that should be judged on its own terms it is the Belmont Stakes. At 1 1/2 miles on dirt, the race is an annual expedition into the unknown. Rules of pace and style that shed bright light on events of eight, nine, or 10 furlongs are stretched beyond their limits. Horses have done nothing like it before and never will again.

There have been 41 Belmonts in my lifetime without a Triple Crown on the line. For those who live and die by the Crown, that’s a lot of Belmonts to ignore. As for personal favorites among those 41, I’ll pass on anything that happened before I was able to reach the betting window on tiptoes, although I think I would have been pretty darned excited to have been paying attention when Gallant Man, brutally robbed in the 1957 Derby, tried to rectify matters in the Belmont. He did, and set an American record in the process.

Here, then, is a five-pack of Belmonts to be cherished for a variety of reasons, each of them unfolding without so much as a whiff of Triple Crown aroma. Hard to believe as it may be, there can be life after Baltimore:

1967: Damascus is on everyone’s short list of the best horses who did not win the Triple Crown. He was a personal favorite, and his loss in the Derby still ranks with such disappointments of the era as the Dodgers losing four straight to the Orioles and the breakup of Buffalo Springfield. Such is the idealism of the young.

Damascus defeated the Canadian colt Cool Reception, who finished the Belmont on three good legs. From there Damascus went on to run nine more times that year, winning seven and losing the other two by a nose. By then I already knew how to tell time, but just in case I could always set the clock by Damascus.

1975: Even in a racing world that can thrill to Frankel, Zenyatta, or Black Caviar, sometimes parity can be fun. Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was the best of a talented cast during the Triple Crown of ’75, but like the old gunfighter said, you’d hate to have to live on the difference.

When Foolish Pleasure, Avatar, Diabolo, and Master Derby convened for the third straight time in the Belmont it was anybody’s guess, and with a quarter of a mile to run it was anybody’s race. Diabolo blinked first, then Master Derby, at which point Avatar and Bill Shoemaker struck for home and held off Foolish Pleasure and Jacinto Vasquez to win by a dwindling neck.

Their following was so great that a three-way match was proposed among the winners of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. But neither Avatar’s people nor those associated with Master Derby could come to terms, which left New York’s promoters with the idea to pit Foolish Pleasure against the undefeated filly sensation Ruffian instead.

1982: There was a time, believe it or not, when winning the Kentucky Derby was more important than attempting to win the Triple Crown. At least, that’s how Eddie Gregson felt about it after training Gato Del Sol to an unlikely Derby upset. When Gregson announced on the Churchill Downs winner’s stand that his colt would pass the Preakness and point for the Belmont, you would have thought he’d just set fire to a girl scout. The hackles of the mainstream sports press rose to preposterous heights, even as those of us back in California enjoyed the smell of roses and shrugged, “That’s our Eddie.”

After the ’82 Preakness transpired without incident, or much excitement, for that matter, the Belmont loomed as a chance for the media to grill Gregson and for Gregson to justify his move. Gato Del Sol ran his race, but Woody Stephens, for whom Gregson once worked, won his first Belmont Stakes with the runaway Conquistador Cielo, later elevated to Horse of the Year.

1986: Four straight Belmont wins later, Stephens appeared to have his hands full winning a fifth with Danzig Connection, faced as he was with colts trained by his elders Charlie Whittingham, 73, who had Derby winner Ferdinand, and Walter Kelley, 79, who trained the now horse Johns Treasure. Woody was but 72.

Youth won out, though, and it was Danzig Connection by 1 1/2 lengths at the end of a sloppy 12 furlongs. A few moments later came that unforgettable sound, as Stephens descended from the box seats to chants of “Woody! Woody! Woody!” Until the Zenyatta roars began filling the air, I’ve never heard anything like it at a racetrack.

1996: Call it regional bias, but there was a certain amount of emotional investment in the Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier, the gelding bred in California’s wine country who was beaten in the closest Derby finish in 37 years by Grindstone, a horse who never answered the bell for another race.

In the Preakness, Cavonnier was fourth (after dodging a football thrown from the infield on the far turn), then it was on to New York, where he took the track as the favorite in the Belmont field of 14.

Excitement gave way to anguish when Chris McCarron began easing Cavonnier to a stop as the field straightened into the stretch while Editor’s Note was wearing down Skip Away for the victory. It was a long walk back for McCarron, and a long ambulance ride for Cavonnier, who suffered a ruptured tendon. Some fairy tales have rotten endings.

But most don’t. Cavonnier is 20 now, roaming a pasture in Northern California. For the record, the tendon looks as good as new.