Belmont Stakes: The Third Leg of the Elusive Triple Crown
Here is the hallowed ground where Man o’ War left the crowd in awe, breaking the American record while being eased under the wire—and where Secretariat pounded the dirt to thundering acclaim and scored a 31-length victory in world record time, while announcer Chic Anderson famously cackled, “He is moving like a tremendous machine!”
When the equine stars align, Triple Crown winners like Secretariat, Citation, Affirmed, and American Pharoah have baked themselves into superstardom. But even Belmont’s near-misses of Smarty Jones, Real Quiet, Silver Charm and California Chrome were the devastatingly thrilling events of their seasons.
The first Belmont in the United States was not the famous stakes race or even the man for whom it is named. Rather, the first Belmont was a race horse that arrived in California in 1853 from his breeding grounds of Franklin, Ohio. The Belmont Stakes, however, are named after August Belmont, a financier who made quite a name and fortune for himself in New York politics and society. Obviously, Mr. Belmont was also quite involved in horse racing, and his imprint is even intertwined within the history of the Kentucky Derby.
One thing the Belmont does have over the Derby is that it is the oldest of the three Triple Crown events. The Belmont predates the Preakness by six years, the Kentucky Derby by eight. The first running of the Belmont Stakes was in 1867 at Jerome Park, on, believe it or not, a Thursday. At a mile and five furlongs, the conditions included an entry fee of $200, half forfeit with $1,500 added. Furthermore, not only is the Belmont the oldest Triple Crown race, but it is the fourth oldest race overall in North America. The Phoenix Stakes, now run in the fall at Keeneland as the Phoenix Breeders’ Cup, was first run in 1831. The Queen’s Plate in Canada made its debut in 1860, while the Travers in Saratoga opened in 1864. However, since there were gaps in sequence for the Travers, the Belmont is third only to the Phoenix and Queen’s Plate in total runnings.
The Belmont Stakes was run at Jerome Park from 1867 to 1889; at Morris Park from 1890 to 1904; at Aqueduct from 1963 to 1967. Not run in 1911 and 1912. Run at a mile and five furlongs from 1867 to 1873; a mile and a quarter in 1890, 1891, 1892, 1895, 1904 and 1905; a mile and a furlong in 1893 and 1894; a mile and three furlongs from 1896 to 1903 and from 1906 to 1925. No time taken in 1907 and 1908. Run as a Handicap Stakes in 1895 and in 1913. The value for the 1987, 1988 and 1992 winners includes the $1,000,000 Triple Crown point system bonus.
Secretariat’s 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes established the world record for a mile and a half on dirt at 2:24 and will forever be engraved into our memories. With his win in the Belmont, he became the ninth horse to capture the Triple Crown. Seattle Slew took the title in 1977 with Jean Cruguet.
Five years later Affirmed trained by Laz Barrera, swept the Triple Crown races. His duel with Alydar in the Belmont Stakes earned him the titled of the 11th Triple Crown Winner. This was the start of the 37-year Triple Crown drought. The American racing world would wait anxiously each year for the start of the Triple Crown series in hopes that a savior of the dry spell would emerge.
Since 1978 many horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, Charismatic in 1999, War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, I’ll have Another in 2012 and California Chrome in 2014) and were denied racing immortality in the Belmont Stakes.
Then in 2015, along came American Pharoah. Owned by Zayat Stables, LLC ridden by Victor Espinoza and trained by Bob Baffert who had been previously denied not once, but twice of Triple Crown glory with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. Victor Espinoza experienced heartache as well in the Belmont Stakes in 2014 when California Chrome failed to take the third jewel of the crown.
In front of a capped crowd of 90,000, the field of eight headlined by American Pharoah, loaded into the gate. Everyone from the fans to staff to the Zayat family held their breath as the gates flew open. American Pharoah broke and went right to the lead at the first turn. Coming into the home stretch the crowd increasingly grew louder and louder cheering on the soon to be 12th Triple Crown Champion. Victor Espinoza opened him up as he made his “run for glory.” He glided across the finish line at a 5 ½ length victory and with a time of 2:26.65. It was the fastest Belmont stakes since Point Given in 2001 and the second fastest to Triple Crown winner, Secretariat. The crowed erupted in euphoria, the 37-year wait was finally over. Tears, laughing, and cheering amongst a most grateful Belmont crowd will be remembered for years to come.
Blocked behind a wall of horses with a quarter-mile to run, WinStar Farm and Bobby Flay’s Creator weaved his way through traffic and used the length of the stretch to reel in Destin and win the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets by a nose. The margin of victory matched the smallest in Belmont history reached three times prior, most recently in 1998 when Victory Gallop spoiled Real Quiet’s bid at the Triple Crown. Victory Gallop was trained by Elliott Walden, now president, CEO and racing manager of WinStar Farm.