Over the next two weeks, we at Don Best will provide in-depth analysis of the fast-approaching Belmont Stakes on June 9, when I’ll Have Another will try to become the first horse in 34 years to win the Triple Crown.
Before we preview the race, however, let’s take a look at recent Belmont history and try and put into perspective the task that awaits I’ll Have Another on Long Island.
In almost 50 years following the sport, I've seen 19 horses try to win the Triple Crown. Only three of them – 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 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 the early posted numbers 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 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 34 years since Steve Cauthen and Affirmed 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 Chick Anderson, in his last Belmont, told viewers, "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. Northern Dancer, under Bill Hartack, was looking awfully good for a mile and-a-quarter in '64, 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 during 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, 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 third 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 15 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. It was as close as a horse could come to winning the Crown, and not getting it.
Forward to 1999, when another Lewis horse, Charismatic, looked ready 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 Cie 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 34 years 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. Remember, a lot of big names have only won two legs of the crown, 46 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 I'll Have Another might discover on Long Island, the Belmont can be a tough hurdle for even the greatest horses to overcome.