These days, the level of popular interest in the Belmont Stakes often depends upon whether a Triple Crown is at stake. Although understandable, such a view tends to overlook the historic importance of the Belmont in its own right.
The oldest of the three American classic races, the Belmont predates the very concept of the Triple Crown by more than half a century. The inaugural running of the Belmont took place in 1867. Not until 1919 did Sir Barton win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, a hat trick that was not even called the Triple Crown at that time. After Gallant Fox completed the same sweep in 1930, legendary turf writer Charles Hatton coined the phrase "Triple Crown," and the term entered the racing lexicon.
Of course, some of the sport's iconic moments have come in a Triple Crown-clinching Belmont — Secretariat's 31-length conquest in 1973, in world-record time for 1 1/2 miles on dirt; Affirmed's titanic struggle against Alydar in 1978; Seattle Slew's galloping home in 1977 to maintain his unbeaten record; Citation's effortless victory in 1948; Count Fleet's 25-length triumph in 1943; the popular Whirlaway rolling in 1941.
But the Belmont has also showcased the talents of truly great horses who were not in a position to win the Triple Crown. This venerable event has historically served as the "Test of the Champion," and its honor roll is festooned with Hall of Famers.
The immortal Man o' War, still praised in some quarters as America's greatest-ever Thoroughbred, is an obligatory starting point. Owner Sam Riddle chose to skip the 1920 Kentucky Derby, claiming that it was too early in the season for his prize colt to go 1 1/4 miles. Man o' War was thus never in the hunt for a Triple Crown that had yet to be defined, but that didn't make his Belmont any less spectacular.
The strapping, fiery chestnut nicknamed "Big Red" transcended racing as a cultural phenomenon, attracting legions of fans with his take-no-prisoners running style. The champion suffered his only career defeat as a juvenile, when he was slowly away in the 1919 Sanford Stakes at Saratoga and just failed to catch Upset by a half-length. This stunning loss created such an impression throughout the sports world that from then on, the word "upset" meant an underdog beating the favorite.
After opening his three-year-old campaign with comfortable wins in the Preakness (then held at 1 1/8 miles) and Withers, Man o' War frightened off the opposition in the Belmont. Only one horse, the hopeless longshot Donnacona, lined up to face him. It might as well have been a walkover. Man o' War easily took the lead under a stout hold by regular rider Clarence Kummer, and once given his head, turned the race into a rout. A phalanx of photographers, and even some shooting footage for the primitive newsreels, were on hand to give the clamoring public images of its superstar.
Belmont Stakes (Saturday, NBC)
Brisnet: It's been 33 years since Affirmed did it in 1978, but there's a lot more to racing than just winning the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Man o' War had accomplished more than beating up on his punching bag by an official margin of 20 lengths. He also smashed the record time for 1 3/8 miles, the distance of the Belmont in those days, by clocking 2:14 1/5.
"A racing record that had been shot at by the best Thoroughbreds of the world for a dozen years was knocked to splinters yesterday afternoon by what is probably the best horse that any living man ever looked at," The Thoroughbred Record claimed in the breathless style of the era.
The Belmont was in Man o' War's blood, so to speak. His great-grandsire Spendthrift and grandsire Hastings were Belmont winners in 1879 and 1896, respectively, and his sire Fair Play had fallen a head short in 1908. Man o' War would go on to sire three Belmont heroes himself, American Flag (1925), Crusader (1926) and Triple Crown hero War Admiral (1937).
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
The rest of 1920 was a triumphal march for Man o' War, who concluded his 20-for-21 career by demolishing Sir Barton by seven lengths in a match race. To be fair, Sir Barton was compromised by foot problems at the time, but even an in-form Sir Barton would have had a tall task against Man o' War.
The respective merits of Man o' War and Sir Barton illustrate an important point: greatness is not confined to the Triple Crown.
While Man o' War cuts the most dashing figure among Belmont winners who didn't sweep the Triple Crown, the club includes a number of Hall of Famers who deserve to be better known by the casual fan.
That list begins with the filly Ruthless, the winner of the inaugural Belmont in 1867, eight years before the Kentucky Derby came into existence. This was also about four decades before the grand opening of Belmont Park in 1905. The first home of the Belmont Stakes was the new Jerome Park, named for businessman and racing impresario Leonard Jerome, who later became the grandfather of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Ruthless was battle-tested against colts well prior to her Belmont attempt, having defeated males twice as a juvenile and in her first two starts at three. When Ruthless was beaten third time out going 1 1/2 miles at Paterson, New Jersey, some questioned her ability to stay the Belmont trip, which was originally 1 5/8 miles. Stamina has thus ever been a matter of debate in advance of the Belmont.
Patiently handled, Ruthless bided her time some way off the pace on a heavy track. She rallied to challenge the front-running DeCourcey and engaged the colt in a stretch-long duel. DeCourcey initially appeared to fend her off, but Ruthless was not done. Surging in the final yards, she thrust her head in front.
The Spirit of the Times correspondent believed that the filly had more up her sleeve: "It is likely that it was not all out of her, for (jockey) Gilpatrick looked over towards the colt, as if quite sure of it, when she collared him at the middle of the stand," and "the great filly" prevailed "without a touch of the whip or spur."
Ruthless later added the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga to resume. The winner of seven of 11 lifetime starts, and runner-up in the other four, she met with a tragic end. As a 12-year-old mare in her paddock, Ruthless was shot by mistake by a passing hunter. She waged a five-week-long battle for her life, but could not survive.
Another 19th-century supremo was Hanover, who won a remarkable 20 of 27 starts during his hectic sophomore campaign in 1887. Not eager to do his job at two, when he had to be rousted along to win all three of his races, he developed a killer instinct at three.
So dominant was Hanover in his first three starts of the season, all in New York, that almost no one wanted to take on the unbeaten colt in the Belmont. As with Man o' War more than three decades later, a single rival stepped forward, but that hardly amounted to meaningful competition. Hanover cruised 1 1/2 miles around the heavy track on a rainy, humid day, leading throughout, and won as he pleased from poor Oneko by an estimated 75 yards.
The Spirit of the Times sniffed that it was a deplorable state of affairs for the "time-honored Belmont Stakes" (then just 20 years old), and "a sad commentary on the times," that the race was "reduced to a virtual walkover as so great was the prestige of Hanover that no one would start against him."
Longing for the good old days is a hallmark of racing reportage, in any era.
At one point a perfect 17-for-17, Hanover was unable to maintain his streak under the stress of heavy racing. He soldiered on through his five-year-old season and retired with 32 wins, 14 seconds and 2 thirds from 50 starts. The chestnut turned out to be an influential stallion and left an indelible mark on pedigrees. Fans can still get an up-close and personal look at Hanover, or at least his skeleton, which is housed at the Kentucky Horse Park.
The brilliant Colin sought to extend his record to 14-for-14 in the 1908 Belmont. A son of 1901 Belmont star Commando, Colin was a real crowd-pleaser since his juvenile days. The champion colt returned to action with a victory in the Withers, and posted a sensational work for the Belmont. Unfortunately, Colin exited that drill with an unspecified injury, generally described as "broken down" or as rumor had it, with bowed tendons. Racing fans doubted whether their beloved superstar would even make the race, or if his connections would risk a loss in the circumstances. Fragility in racehorses is therefore nothing new.
Amazingly, Colin recovered from his setback in time to contest the Belmont, and served up one of its most nail-biting finishes. Colin strode to the front and into the pelting rain that obscured the field from view. When reappearing to the spectators as he approached the final turn, he was still in command, but began to tire in the stretch. Meanwhile, Fair Play (later renowned as the sire of Man o' War) was gaining as he splashed through the slop.
"The great crowd hoped and prayed, begged and pleaded for Colin and (jockey Joe) Notter to come on and last the mile and three furlongs," The Thoroughbred Record reported. "Fair Play kept creeping up on the outside, but Colin came again and hung on with wonderful gameness and endurance."
Colin maintained his lead past the usual finish line, but the wire for the Belmont was a little farther down the stretch. Notter appeared to react to the wrong finish line, for Colin eased up, allowing Fair Play to draw ever closer. Notter then urged Colin on again, and he just held on by a desperate head, sending the racegoers into a cheering frenzy. The question remains whether Notter misjudged the wire, which he denied, or whether Colin was simply running on fumes.
Colin's gallantry gave trainer James Rowe Sr. the sixth of his eight Belmont titles, still a record for a trainer. In addition, Rowe had won two Belmonts as a jockey. Colin also handed owner James R. Keene the fifth of six Belmont wins, and he ranks as the joint leading owner in Belmont history.
After Colin kept his unblemished record intact next time out in the Tidal Stakes, he was once more overshadowed by an injury cloud. He never raced again. By retiring with a sterling 15-for-15 mark, Colin ranked as the last major American Thoroughbred to go unbeaten for 80 years, until Personal Ensign came along. He also exerted a lasting influence at stud, despite being subfertile.
The world-famous thoroughbred racing hotbed of Saratoga Springs, N.Y. is celebrating its 150 year anniversary in the sport.
Most of the discussion in the aftermath of Oxbow's Preakness victory involved either explaining away why Orb lost or downplaying why Oxbow won. But Oxbow was plenty impressive.