A TANGIBLE sense of expectation surrounds Belmont Park when the Triple Crown is on the line in the venerable New York venue’s signature contest.
A capacity crowd is guaranteed on such occasions, though attendance figures will never again approach the record 120,000-plus who witnessed Smarty Jones’s eclipse in 2004 as the gate is now capped at 90,000 owing to overcrowding.
Speaking as one who has joined the throng on the Long Island Rail Road from Manhattan’s Penn Station out to the track – or, more pertinently, tried to get home afterwards by the same mode of transport – that was probably a wise move.
Even Belmont’s cavernous main stand, an ivy-clad behemoth, generally felt as if it was bursting at the seams as the crowd regularly hit six figures for America’s oldest Classic during that notorious Triple Crown drought between Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah four years ago when a plethora of horses tried and failed to land the holy grail of American racing.
Such fevered anticipation levels, however, carry an inherent downside for the event’s profile, for what happens when there is no Triple Crown up for grabs in the Belmont Stakes? Doesn’t the so-called ‘Test of the Champion’ lose its raison d’etre when there is no obvious ‘champion’ there to be tested at the ‘Big Sandy’? Well, yes and no.
Which is where we come to this year’s 151st edition of the America’s oldest Classic, dating back to 1867 and its inaugural running at Jerome Park in the Bronx.
There’s no Kentucky Derby winner on show this time around, whichever one you care to choose, as both first-past-the-post Maximum Security and promoted victor Country House are ducking the issue. In their absence, there is something appropriate about Preakness winner War Of Will, the horse who suffered most in the infamous Churchill Downs barging match, claiming the status of likely Belmont favourite.
Moreover, while it would be idle to suggest this field looks the most compelling in a rich history, it isn’t without its notables, such as Kentucky Derby third Tacitus – representing Country House’s trainer Bill Mott – and Master Fencer, who has legitimate chances of becoming the second overseas horse to win the race.
The first? Go And Go, trained by that renowned international pioneer Dermot Weld and ridden by Mick Kinane to a famous victory in 1990.
They will be bidding to add their name to a roll of honour that rivals that of any race in America, the Belmont being the only Triple Crown event to have been won by the sport’s ultimate triumvirate of US equine greats in Man o’War, Citation and Secretariat.
Man o’War won by 20 lengths in 1920; you may well not need reminding that Secretariat did even better in 1973, embossing his legend with a never-to-be-forgotten 31-length victory, a performance that has gone down in the annals as arguably the greatest ever seen anywhere.
The Belmont, though, is almost equally well known for the failure of any number of Triple Crown hopefuls – Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence and California Chrome among them – who bit the dust before the Bob Baffert pair American Pharoah and Justify made the whole thing look ridiculously easy in the last few years.
That said, often the Belmont has offered redemption for horses who were deemed to be at the head of the crop at the beginning of the three-race sweep: A.P. Indy, for instance, was lame on Kentucky Derby morning but won the Belmont by 5 ½ lengths, while Easy Goer finally beat Sunday Silence in 1989 and Empire Maker, who floored Funny Cide in a mudbath in 2003, had been hampered by a bruised foot at Churchill Downs.
This is also the race in which Julie Krone became the only female to land a Triple Crown contest on Colonial Affair in 1993, while trainer Woody Stephens carved out a scarcely conceivable slice of racing history by winning five in a row between 1982 and 1986.
While the Triple Crown casts a long shadow over the Belmont Stakes in the modern era, the concept is less than a century old in the States. Indeed, the term ‘Triple Crown’ was not used until Gallant Fox became the second horse to complete the sweep in 1930, and it wasn’t in widespread currency until Omaha in 1935.
Before 1931, when a permanent schedule evolved, the Belmont was run before the Preakness 11 times; on a couple of occasions, a Triple Crown would have been impossible, as the Derby and Preakness were actually run on the same day in 1917 and 1922; the Belmont was also cancelled in 1911 and 1912 when gambling was outlawed in New York.
As such, the $1.5 million contest has always been a hugely prestigious race in its own right – albeit an anomalous one, given that its 12-furlong distance, just a single lap of America’s widest dirt oval, is regarded as a marathon in US racing, a trip over which none of Saturday’s contenders are ever likely to compete again.
Named after August Belmont Sr., who financed the building of its original home Jerome Park, the Belmont Stakes has its own set of traditions, rather like the other two jewels of the Triple Crown.
You guessed it: flowers, booze and singing are involved. The Belmont is the ‘Run for the Carnations’ (owing to the post-race blanket of white carnations), the ‘Belmont Breeze’ is the official cocktail and they play a rendition of Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, belting out the ‘Theme from New York, New York’ before the main event.
It wasn’t always thus: the post-parade song used to be ‘The Sidewalks of New York’, and Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ has also made an appearance.
What is more, the Belmont is no longer anything like a one-shot deal, since five years ago the New York Racing Association have rebuilt their foremost racecard into the focal point of a three-day festival culminating in a stakes-laden Saturday card featuring no fewer than nine Graded stakes, eight of them carrying Grade 1 status.
The Met Mile, featuring dual Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow, might well outshine the ostensible feature; among those involved elsewhere on the card are Serengeti Empress and Bricks And Mortar, respective winners of the Kentucky Oaks and Pegasus World Cup Turf.
With over $7m on offer in prize-money altogether, the Belmont Stakes card is now regarded by many as the best in America away from the Breeders’ Cup.
And that’s even when there’s no Triple Crown on the line.
BELMONT STAKES: SIX MEMORABLE EDITIONS
“He’s moving like a tremendous machine,” cried incredulous racecaller Chic Anderson as he witnessed probably the greatest performance in US racing history with a 31-length victory and a record time of 2min24sec (12 seconds a furlong) that still stands today.
An epic rivalry is given its clearest expression as Affirmed and Alydar produce a blockbuster, going head to head for the last seven furlongs until the former completes his Triple Crown by a head.
1990 Go And Go
The only European-trained horse ever to win a Triple Crown race, with noted internationalist Dermot Weld at the controls and Mick Kinane doing the steering. The magnitude of the achievement only grows as it recedes further into history with no sign of anybody repeating the dose.
1998 Victory Gallop
How does Real Quiet lose this? Four lengths ahead with a furlong to go, he gets touched off by a nose at the wire – and this 12 months after trainer Bob Baffert had suffered similar agonies with Silver Charm.
2007 Rags To Riches
An amazing battle of the sexes as the gallant Rags To Riches outdoes Preakness winner Curlin to become only the third filly ever to win the Belmont and the first since 1905.
2015 American Pharoah
The wait is finally over, for American racing as a whole and Bob Baffert especially, as American Pharoah enters the history books with a comfortable victory to end a 37-year Triple Crown drought.