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Wide-open Belmont can create a star
It was bad enough when the Aqueduct casino contract fell through. Tougher still when the state of New York let them twist in the wind before coming up with money needed to operate. Then Monmouth Park piled on with its mega-meet, dwarfing the purses in a thousand-mile radius.
Now, after all that, the New York Racing Association must somehow pick itself up from the mat to present the 142nd running of its cherished Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 5, without
the presence of either the Kentucky Derby winner, Super Saver, or the Preakness winner, Lookin At Lucky.
What next? Kardashians in the Turf & Field Club?
As Belmont Park's marquee event, the Belmont Stakes resists being marginalized as a dinosaur roaming the land, to be taken seriously only in anticipation of a Triple Crown attempt. At the same time, it is understandable for casual fans to be disappointed when a three-act play is advertised, and the stars leave the stage at the end of Act II.
In the 79 years since the concept of the American Triple Crown was embraced as part of the game's fabric, when turf writer Charles Hatton borrowed the British term to describe the three-race sweep of Gallant Fox in the spring of 1930, there have been only eight Belmonts left dangling without a Derby or a Preakness winner to spice up the field.
That is a rare enough sample, 8 for 79, to wonder why it ever happened at all, apart from the obvious unpredictabilities of Thoroughbred soundness.
In 1932, E.R. Bradley's Burgoo King won the Derby by five and the Preakness by a head, then immediately tried the Withers but came up lame after finishing sixth.
In 1933, after they had their jockeys wrestle on horseback at Churchill Downs and then finished first and last at Pimlico, neither Derby winner Brokers Tip nor Preakness winner Head Play had anything left to give to a Belmont.
In 1936, Bold Venture had the good timing to win the only two stakes of his career in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The effort cost him a bowed tendon, however, and he never made it to the Belmont.
In 1945, as the ban on racing was lifted following the end of the war in Europe, the Triple Crown was compressed into 15 days. Hoop Jr. won the Derby on June 9, finished second in the Preakness on June 16, and came out of the race with a damaged tendon. Polynesian, on the other hand, skipped the Derby and was a fresh horse when he beat Hoop Jr. in the Preakness, but his people decided not to bring him back in the Belmont, on June 23.
In 1954, Determine won the Kentucky Derby in his ninth start of the season. That was enough Triple Crown for trainer Bill Molter, who took the gray colt back home to California. Without the Derby winner, the Preakness went to Hasty Road, making his eighth start of the season. That was enough for his trainer, Harry Trotsek, who took him back home to Chicago.
In 1970, the lasting memory of a bittersweet Triple Crown was not of the horses, but of the legacy left by trainer Hirsch Jacobs, 14 times the national champion. Jacobs died that February before he could enjoy the sight of the family-owned Personality win the Preakness and High Echelon take the Belmont, with son John Jacobs at the controls. Dust Commander, the Derby winner, emerged from the Preakness lame, while Personality spiked a fever after taking the Jersey Derby the week before the Belmont, leaving the race to his stablemate.
Thirty years passed before it happened again, in the spring of 2000, when the dazzling Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus ran aground in the muddy Preakness behind the opportunistic Red Bullet, and neither camp saw any reason to settle matters in the Belmont.
Most recently, in 2006, the Triple Crown was marred by the ultimately fatal injury suffered by Derby winner Barbaro shortly after the start of the Preakness. Bernardini had his way with the field at Pimlico, winning by 5 1/4 lengths, but he was delicately campaigned and passed the Belmont in favor of later races at Saratoga.
There are hopes being raised that a colt could emerge from this year's Belmont Stakes and go on to prove himself to be one of the best of the division, if not the outright champion. There is always a chance. Last year, Summer Bird was a non-factor in the Derby and a no-show for the Preakness before his Belmont victory triggered a string of impressive performances and a championship.
And who knows? Maybe Super Saver was a one-trick pony in his muddy, rail-skimming Derby win, and that Lookin At Lucky exhausted his supply of good fortune when he triumphed in the Preakness. Both are alive and well, but instead of running in the Belmont they will spend next Saturday in the comfort of their stalls provided by Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert, while stablemates of lesser accomplishments go forth in the Triple Crown finale.
Sometimes, under these particular circumstances, it does not take much to become a Belmont winner.
History's jury is hung.
Of the eight colts who won the Preakness and Derby-less Belmonts since 1930, four of them never won another race: Hurryoff (1933), High Echelon (1970), Commendable (2000), and Jazil (2006). Of those, at least High Echelon was good enough at age two to win the Belmont and Pimlico-Laurel Futurities.
The other four winners were considerably better than empty stalls. The list begins with Faireno, trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons to win the 1932 Belmont, who went on to win the Dwyer, the Saratoga Handicap, and the Lawrence Realization at three and then four more handicaps at age four.
Fitzsimmons also trained the 1936 Belmont winner Granville, who dumped his jockey at the beginning of the 1936 Derby and lost the Preakness by the length of Bold Venture's nose. This was not a colt easily discouraged. On his way to the title of Horse of the Year that season, Granville won his Belmont by a nose, the
Travers by a neck, and lost both the Suburban and Wood Memorial by noses.
Pavot took a bit longer to appreciate. After winning the 1945 Belmont by five for trainer Oscar White, he tailed off through the rest of the year. Then, in 1946, Pavot matured to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Massachusetts Handicap, while mixing it up with Stymie and Assault along the way.
If there is a role model for the relatively anonymous group of colts running in the 2010 Belmont Stakes to emulate, they could do a whole lot worse than High Gun, winner of a 1954 Belmont without Determine or Hasty Road. Racing for Max Hirsch and the King Ranch, High Gun beat Fisherman, Correlation, and Porterhouse that day - all of them serious talents - then backed up his Belmont with a win in the Dwyer against his own class and eventual victories over older horses in the Manhattan, the Sysonby, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
"High Gun was as good a horse as I've ever seen," said racing writer Russ Harris. "He beat Hasty Road in Chicago and Nashua on the square. And as a 4-year-old he came this close to winning the New York handicap Triple Crown, carrying upwards of 130 most of the time."
High Gun fits into that category of 3-year-olds who jump into the Triple Crown just in time to grab the last gold ring. He passed on the Derby and the Preakness, along with such famous brethren as Temperence Hill (1980), Conquistador Cielo (1982), and A.P. Indy (1992), all of them champions.
"I know the Belmont is thought of as an anachronism, because a lot of times they'll never have to go a mile and a half again," said Neil Drysdale, who trained A.P. Indy. "And it's a difficult racetrack, so it does seem to sort everybody out."
Five weeks before their Belmont, Drysdale had to scratch A.P. Indy from the Kentucky Derby field with a bad foot. He certainly could have backed off and pointed for summer targets, but instead the trainer brought his colt back for the Peter Pan the week following the Preakness.
"At the time we thought he was a superior horse, and if we couldn't run in the Kentucky Derby, at least we'd try to run in the Belmont," Drysdale said. "I don't know if it's the case today, but at that time it was a very
important race in a 3-year-old's career - even more than the Kentucky Derby in terms of being a stallion-maker.
"The foot was patched for the Peter Pan, and he came into the race very well, and won well," Drysdale added. "More of a problem was the Belmont, because he was starting to feel the patch a little bit. But he got through it."
While the Belmont served its purpose for a colt like A.P. Indy, who went on to be Horse of the Year as well as a success at stud, the race is usually feast or famine in terms of national attention. For instance, in addition to the 11 Triple Crown winners sanctified in the Belmont, there have been 19 other horses who have come to the Belmont as winners of the Derby and the Preakness, most recently Big Brown in 2008. That makes 30 Belmont runnings of the highest drama since Sir Barton's 1918 Triple Crown was grandfathered in by Charles Hatton and Gallant Fox.
On 18 other occasions, at least since 1918, both the Derby and the Preakness winner have graced the
Belmont field, doing their best to resolve the Triple Crown and send the division packing into the rest of the season with a clear-cut leader.
More often than not, the showdown has been lopsided - Gallahadion was no match for Bimelech in 1940, Middleground put Hill Prince in his place in 1950, Gate Dancer was no match for Swale in 1984, and
Monarchos was dusted by Point Given in 2001 - or a third colt emerged to split the Crown three ways.
In a special handful of Belmonts, however, both the Derby winner and Preakness winner have stepped up to certify their quality, most memorably in 1949, when Preakness winner Capot held on to beat Derby winner Ponder by a half length, and in 1991, when Preakness winner Hansel refused to fold as Derby winner Strike the Gold charged to within a head at the end of the mile and one-half.
Quite apart from Triple Crown connotations, a host of vivid Belmont images come to mind. Native Dancer working way too hard to turn back Jamie K. Sword Dancer and Bagdad duking it out while Black Hills and Arcaro lay behind them in the mud. Damascus catching a gallant Cool Reception, who finished on three legs. Majestic Prince and Spectacular Bid coughing it up without much fight. Woody's five in a row.
Conquistador Cielo by 14. Risen Star by nearly 15.
Secretariat by 31, the tote board timer aglow with his 2:24.
"That was my first win in a Triple Crown race, and I was so excited," said Conquistador Cielo's rider, Laffit Pincay, who had competed for 18 years and made the Hall of Fame without winning a Derby, a Preakness or a Belmont. "Gosh, I thought I'd never win one. After that day I could say, at least I won one. I wanted that."
As a young West Coast fan, this reporter was forever in thrall of the Belmont Stakes, imagined as a race taking place on a far off mountaintop in that kingdom they called New York. Just saying "Quadrangle" out loud was a kick, or dropping "Hail to All" in conversation alongside the 1964-65 Dodgers, as if they could throw toe-to-toe with Koufax and Drysdale.
By the time Avatar won the 1975 Belmont, defeating Derby winner Foolish Pleasure and Preakness winner Master Derby, I knew his trainer, Tommy Doyle, who cherished that victory more than any of the dozens of major events he won during his career.
"There's a reason they call it a classic, lad," said Doyle one morning, back home in California, as he admired the chestnut with the Bend-Or spots. "Win one of those and you've done your job."
Nowadays, I have no choice. The Belmont Stakes is part of the household. Walk through the door and there are dried flowers, the traditional Belmont carnations, in a shadow box on the wall. That's the jockey's
Belmont trophy sitting eye level on the bookshelf, a
silver caf au lait serving pot, designed in London in 1935 by F. Gorevic & Son.
"Every jockey wants to win the Kentucky Derby, of course," said Julie Krone, the lady of the house, and winner of the 1993 Belmont aboard Colonial Affair. "But the Belmont - that's a real race."
Colonial Affair bypassed the Derby and the
Preakness that spring, as trainer Scotty Schulhofer aimed specifically for the Belmont. Krone said the plan had been hatched a long way back, recalling a conversation with fellow rider Richie Migliore the previous fall.
"I've got to be out of town when this colt runs," Krone said. "Want to break the maiden of next year's Belmont winner?"
"Sure," replied Migliore. "Can I ride him in the Belmont, too?"
"No," said Krone.
Fred Stone's image of the winning colt and jockey hangs above the family room hearth. Doubtless there are similar souvenirs scattered around racing's landscape, pieces of the Belmont's indelible history. One day not long ago a certain 4-year-old stopped and for the first time craned her neck to consider the print, perched high on the wall.
"Mommy," said Lorelei Krone, "you look so happy."
Of course she does. She had just won the Belmont.