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.
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 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.
In the ensuing years, as the Kentucky Derby rose to national prominence and the Triple Crown was recognized, the Belmont took on its contemporary role as the final leg of the coveted series.
One of the unluckiest to be deprived of the Triple Crown was Twenty Grand. The Greentree Stable homebred was hampered in the 1931 Preakness, which was held before the Kentucky Derby at that time. Rallying furiously, he had to settle for second behind Mate. Twenty Grand set the record straight one week later in the Kentucky Derby, trouncing Mate into a distant third. In the course of his emphatic, four-length romp in a final time of 2:01 4/5, Twenty Grand also shattered the track record at Churchill Downs.
Twenty Grand showed up in the Belmont, but Mate headed in the opposite direction to Chicago. Twenty Grand demolished his only two opponents at Belmont Park, including the highly-respected new shooter Jamestown.
It was "undoubtedly Twenty Grand's best race of the year," according to turf writer Neil Newman in Famous Horses of the American Turf.
"The picture will always be etched in my memory -- the three horses running round the turn, head, head and head, thrown into bold relief by the setting sun," Newman wrote. Twenty Grand soon "drew away from them," and "from that point forward, Twenty Grand merely galloped...and he was only cantering as he passed the judges."
A 10-length conqueror of the Belmont in a then-stakes record 2:29 3/5 for 1 1/2 miles, Twenty Grand won five of his remaining six starts that season, including the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was hailed as the Horse of the Year, and indeed, one of historic proportions. Sadly, further injury prevented Twenty Grand from regaining his championship form, and he turned out to be sterile when put to stud.
The 1940 Belmont winner, Bimelech, represents another gnawing what-might-have been, after his campaign was compromised by training interruptions over the winter, poor management in the spring and a latent injury that didn't come to light until after the classics.
Which Bimelech would turn up in the Belmont? The champion. Boxed in early on the rail, Bimelech ultimately escaped and wrested the lead. He put away his rivals, including Gallahadion, to edge clear. But he hadn't finished running the gauntlet yet, for Your Chance was just starting to roll from off the pace.
Your Chance "seemed to loom over Bimelech like oncoming fate," turf writer John Hervey wrote in American Race Horses of 1940, while Bimelech was being nursed along under no more than a hand ride by jockey F.A. Smith.
"It was a finish to search the stoutest heart," but Bimelech "buckled to his work without flinching, and as they approached the wire it was seen that Your Chance, all out and giving everything, could never conquer him."
Bimelech repelled Your Chance by three-quarters of a length, and the manner of his victory led Hervey to call it one of the greatest efforts by a three-year-old in American racing history.
After Bimelech threw in another clunker in his next race, an examination revealed that he had a crack hidden deep inside his hoof. The veterinarian noted that it had originated in a bruise, possibly as many as five months earlier. That would account for the once-invincible Bimelech's erratic form, and makes his Belmont performance all the more honorable. He mounted a brief comeback at four, but was soon retired with 11 wins from 15 starts and became a successful sire.
Once the Belmont entered the television age, it had its first celebrity in Native Dancer, the "Gray Ghost," who was wildly popular in his time. Like Bimelech, he was an undefeated champion at two who lost his perfect record in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, where he had a bad trip and came up a head short of catching Dark Star. Unlike Bimelech, Native Dancer never admitted defeat again. He turned the tables in the Preakness, but Dark Star came out of the race injured, ending what could have been an entertaining rivalry.
Native Dancer nevertheless still proved a point in the Belmont -- that he could stay 1 1/2 miles. Even his trainer Bill Winfrey wasn't entirely certain about his distance capacity, but the gray saw out the trip with energy in reserve. Always close to the slow pace, Native Dancer joined Jamie K, the Preakness runner-up, at the top of the stretch, and the two raced as a team through a blistering final quarter-mile. Native Dancer got the upper hand, and though the neck margin of victory was the same as the Preakness, he appeared to be more firmly in charge in the Belmont.
Legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro, the rider of Jamie K, summed up his trip to The Blood-Horse: "Oh, I said to myself, 'I'm gonna beat that gray horse the next time around.' And I had him for sure at the head of the stretch in the Belmont, but then he got that neck on me and I just couldn't get by him. If we go around again, Native Dancer's still not gonna let me get past him."
In the American Racing Manual, Evan Shipman found the key to Native Dancer's personality on the track: "He possesses an altogether unusual intelligence, giving the impression of not only enjoying racing, but of knowing every trick of the trade as well as, or better than, his jockey and handlers."
Native Dancer outsmarted the opposition for the rest of his career, garnering such races as the Travers and Metropolitan H., and signed off with 21 wins from 22 starts. A champion in each of his three seasons of racing, he also earned a couple of split decisions in the Horse of the Year balloting. But Native Dancer has made an even deeper impact as a sire, propagating the male line responsible for Mr. Prospector, and factoring as the maternal grandsire of Northern Dancer.
In contrast, 1955 Belmont hero Nashua was not as mindful of his craft. The stunningly handsome colt preferred to do whatever struck his fancy at the moment.
"Clearly there is little difference to him between actual competition and his colthood romps in the fields," Hatton wrote in the American Racing Manual.
The champion two-year-old of the previous season, Nashua was beaten fair and square by the front-running Swaps in the Kentucky Derby. Swaps then went back home to California, leaving Nashua to clean up in the remaining two jewels of the Triple Crown. After taking the Preakness by one length in track-record time, Nashua finally put it all together and crushed the Belmont by nine lengths. Yet Arcaro had to practically beg the colt before he struck top gear.
"I really had to pump him all the way down there," Arcaro told The Blood-Horse. "He wouldn't do anything more while I was just pushing him. Once I started hollering and getting into him, then he went. I wanted to smother them in as short a time as I could, and he did it well."
Nashua's triumph marked the end of an era. It was the sixth and last Belmont win for the owner/trainer tandem of Belair Stud and "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons. They were responsible for the only father/son Triple Crown-winning duo, Gallant Fox (1930) and Omaha (1935), as well as Faireno (1932), Granville (1936) and Johnstown (1939), the latter the maternal grandsire of Nashua. It was at the same time the sixth and final Belmont victory for Arcaro, who equaled the record first set by James McLaughlin, Hanover's rider. Arcaro's other Belmont winners included Triple Crown heroes Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948).
Nashua settled his old score with Swaps in their eagerly-anticipated match race later that summer. Swaps was subpar because of a recurring hoof problem and failed to do himself justice, but he was also likely meeting an improved Nashua, who capped his Horse of the Year campaign with another resounding success in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Nashua retired following his productive four-year-old season with a mark of 30 starts, 22 wins, 4 seconds and a third, and then-record earnings of $1,288,565. His legacy endures especially through his daughters, for Nashua is the maternal grandsire of both Mr. Prospector and Roberto.
The 1957 Belmont witnessed one of the greatest performances in the race's history, as *Gallant Man blitzed 1 1/2 miles in a new American record time of 2:26 3/5. The imported colt, bred by The Aga Khan, should have been winning his second classic. Gallant Man was on his way to victory in the Kentucky Derby when jockey Willie Shoemaker misjudged the finish, costing him the race.
"Don't worry -- you'll win the Belmont," trainer John Nerud told Gallant Man on Derby evening, according to The Blood-Horse.
Nerud kept the diminutive colt out of the Preakness, recognizing that he needed longer time between races to ward off ankle trouble. Meanwhile, another member of that all-time great three-year-old crop, Bold Ruler, rebounded from his fourth in the Derby to win the Preakness in front-running style.
The Belmont was a showdown between the unlucky Derby runner-up and the Preakness winner. Nerud knew that Bold Ruler was lethal if let alone on an easy lead, so Gallant Man was joined by an entrymate, Bold Nero, whose job was to press Bold Ruler early. The tactics worked to perfection. Bold Nero harried Bold Ruler as long as he could, and Gallant Man took it from there with Shoemaker seeking redemption.
The stablemates "seemed to be passing the baton in a relay race as they exchanged places midway down the backstretch, and Gallant Man took dead aim on Bold Ruler," wrote Pat O'Brien of The Blood-Horse.
As Gallant Man cruised up to a tiring Bold Ruler, Shoemaker rubbed it in, yelling to Arcaro aboard the longtime leader: "Hey Eddie, look at the hold I've got on this horse!"
Gallant Man burst clear, widened his margin down the stretch, and crossed the wire an eight-length winner. His record time would stand for 16 years, until Secretariat sizzled in 2:24.
"It was well past the finish line when Shoemaker stood up on Gallant Man, and the colt was still going at a good clip into the first turn for a second time, looking as if he would enjoy another tour of the track."
But despite his Belmont heroics, and subsequent victories in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, Gallant Man lost the championship title to Bold Ruler, who won their decisive end-of-season clash. Gallant Man captured three major races at four before embarking on a stud career, and he must go down in the annals as one of the best horses never to be voted champion. His Hall of Fame membership is at least a consolation prize.
We end our selective tour in 1967, a full century after Ruthless started it all, with the mighty Damascus, sired by 1959 Belmont victor Sword Dancer. His campaign reminds us that these young three-year-olds are still learning and developing, and some reach their peak later in the season.
Damascus too found a way to lose as the favorite in the Derby, in his case fretting and losing his composure amid the noisy tumult prior to the race, and wound up a disappointing third. Paired thereafter with his stable pony to soothe him, Damascus gained revenge on Derby winner Proud Clarion in the final two legs of the Triple Crown.
Even though Damascus was a convincing winner of the Preakness and Belmont, leaving Proud Clarion soundly beaten in third and fourth, respectively, the best was yet to come. Damascus romped by 22 lengths in the Travers and by 10 lengths in the Woodward, the "Race of the Century," over fellow all-time greats Buckpasser and Dr. Fager.
Hatton summarized the 1967 Horse of the Year in the American Racing Manual: "Damascus was green at the outset of his three-year-old campaign but gained confidence as it progressed. In the end, his psyche was all that could be desired and he was quite the horseman's horse, with all the self assurance and resourcefulness this implies."
In Saturday's 143rd running of the Belmont, Animal Kingdom, Shackleford and all their rivals will battle to decide whose name is added to this roll of honor. Though no Triple Crown is on the line, there's still plenty at stake -- potentially a championship title, and a place in racing history.