In the 146-year history of the Belmont Stakes there have only been 11 horses that were draped with the white carnations in the winner’s circle that also took down the Preakness, and Kentucky Derby. The fist to do it was Sir Barton in 1919, when it wasn’t considered winning the Triple Crown yet. After Sir Barton there was an 11-year dry spell; ironically during prohibition before Gallant Fox did it in 1930. After that, horse racing went on a tear, producing six Triple Crown winners during the 30’s and 40’s, which ironically is also called the ‘Greatest Generation’.
After a 25-year drought Secretariat came along and destroyed all notions of what a horse could do. Secretariat broke records in all three Triple Crown races that still stand today (although it took them over 30 years to confirm the Preakness), and saved his magnum opus for the Belmont. Winning by 31 lengths and setting a record that will never be broken. That is unless they clone another Secretariat. The iconic image of Secretariat coming down the stretch is on a par with the famous picture of Ali towering over Sonny Liston.
This launched into a minor reemergence for horse racing in the 70’s when Seattle Slew would win it in 1977 and Affirmed in 78’.
Since then its has been a frustrating dry spell of 36 years, with 11 horses coming into Long Island with a chance to end streak.
When Spectacular Bid went into the 79’ Belmont Stakes going for a third in a row, it would be of no fault to anyone to take for granted how remarkable the feat was. Make no mistake, in the following 35 years there would be no drought of a possible winner.
Despite coming up short three times in the 80’s, you couldn’t say it wasn’t great racing. In 87’ the legendary Alysheba, simple ran out of gas and lost to his rival Bet Twice. Then in 89’ Sunday Silence lost to his main rival Easy Goer. Later that year they met up again in the Breeders Cup, in a Classic that would be labeled the ‘Race of the Decade'.
In the 80’s racing fans were simply trading in the Triple Crowns of the 70’s for great rivalries and racing in the 80’s. After all it was only about 10 years, and it was good racing.
If that was the attitude in the 80’s, it certainly wasn’t the attitude fans had by the end of the 90’s. The decade of ‘Generation X’ ended with a series of frustrating bad beats that only added another 10 years to the drought.
In 97’ it was Garry Stevens on Silver Charm who may have felt he was home when he took the lead down the stretch and saw the finish line. However, he certainly didn’t see jockey Chris Macaron on Touch Gold coming up to him to steal that Belmont.
The next year there was an absolute heart breaker, when Kent Desormeaux may have moved Real Quiet too early, sending the big colt out to a four-length lead. The distance was just enough to get nipped at the wire by Victory Gallop. The finish was so close the crown had to wait out a long photo, before Victory Gallop was put up.
The following decade would not prove any less frustrating. Who could forget 2004, Smarty Jones, the fan favorite of all favorites. After his blistering Preakness Smarty Jones brought an undefeated record into the Belmont Stakes. The Pennsylvania bred was considered a ‘freak’ by all accounts as there was nothing on paper that said racing for immortality would be in the cards. The last thing his bloodlines would consider is that he would be able to handle the mile and a half on ‘Big Sandy’, yet it took two incidents of‘race riding’ and a blistering half-mile in order for Birdstone to get to him at the wire. To this day it’s tough to watch.
After that there have been two more attempts. These two fall more into the category of the unusual and downright bizarre. In 2009 Big Brown took his natural equine gifts to Belmont along with his human entourage; a wandering circus of criminals, freaks, and lunatics. That day was bizarre from start to finish. To start it was a brutally hot and humid day, there were reports of Big Brown nervously bucking around in his stall, there have also been reports of PETA members sending threats to the connections of Big Brown. As for the race itself, it held up to its end of the bargain, it was bizarre. Big Brown came out of the gate as rank as he was in the paddock, while Da’ Tara an absurd long shot, quietly crept on the front end before making a break for it near the quarter pole. Meanwhile Kent Desormeaux pleaded for his colt to kick into gear to no avail. As they hit the turn for home, in a stunning turn of events, Big Brown was pulled up to finish last.
Not to be outdone, in 2012 Doug O’Neal scratched his colt I’ll Have Another the day before the race. In a move that left the sports world stunned, O’Neal and his owner called a 1 o’clock press conference to announce the horse has suffered an ankle injury. The next day O’Neal trotted I’ll Have Another out around the paddock where fans could see him. Shortly after that fiasco I’ll Have Another was sold to Japanese businessmen for stud duty.
Tomorrow at 6:52 EST, California Chrome will enter the starting gate as the 12th horse attempting to accomplish the feat. Of course it won’t be handed to him, after all there is $1.5 million up for grabs. California Chrome faces a field of ten other horses. Individually California Chrome has proven to be better than his opponents, but so where 11 others in the last 36 years. It may come down to everyone around him remaining as calm as he has been over the weeks. After all he doesn’t know the history of the race, or why its called the “Test of Champions.”