said Edward L. Bowen, author of more than 20 books on racing history and chair of the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame Nominating Committee. “All eyes, even those of casual fans, focus on the Belmont when there is a possibility of a Triple Crown.”
The Belmont was contested at Jerome Park from 1867 through 1889 and at nearby Morris Park from 1890 through 1904. The race was named for August Belmont, a wealthy financier and sportsman who helped fund the construction of the track. In May 1905, Belmont Park opened in Elmont, on Long Island. Other than in 1911 and 1912 – when the race was not run because of anti-gambling legislation in New York – and 1963 through 1967, when it was held at Aqueduct racetrack because of renovations, the Belmont Stakes has been a signature of Belmont Park since its opening.
The early years featured some of
the top thoroughbreds in the sport’s
history. Even before Sir Barton won
the Belmont in 1919 and became
America’s first Triple Crown winner,
the race had been won by eight horses
that were eventually elected to the
Racing Hall of Fame: Ruthless (1867),
Harry Bassett (1871), Duke of Magenta
(1878), Hanover (1887), Henry of Navarre
(1894), Commando (1901), Peter Pan
(1907), and Colin (1908).
As accomplished as he was, Sir Barton’s
legacy was quickly overshadowed when
the mighty Man o’ War arrived on the scene.
Man o’ War did not contest the Kentucky
Derby in 1920, but he won the Preakness
with ease and dominated the Belmont by 20 lengths.
Man o’ War was one of three future Hall of Famers to win the Belmont in the 1920s along with Grey Lag (1921) and Crusader (1926), a son of Man o’ War. The 1930s and 1940s were both golden decades for the Belmont, as 11 winners went on to the Hall of Fame, including Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1936), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and Citation (1948). Count Fleet’s 25-length margin of victory stood as a race record until Secretariat’s 31-length romp in 1973. Secretariat also ended a 25-year drought between Triple Crowns and, 45 years later, his time of 2:24 remains both the Belmont and American record for the distance.
His powerful surge on the final turn was preserved forever by Chic Anderson’s call. The blazing chestnut colt, Anderson said, was “moving like a tremendous machine.”
“Secretariat’s Belmont ranks among the greatest athletic achievements of all time in any sport,” Bowen said. “I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have watched the race on tape, and it hasn’t lost any of its impact all these years later. It was as good a performance as you’ll ever see.”
Five years later came one of the
smallest margins of victory.
In 1978, Affirmed and Alydar
battled to the wire in each leg
of the Triple Crown. With each
race, Alydar drew closer. In a
timeless duel, running the fastest
last mile in Belmont history,
Affirmed would win racing’s
final jewel by a nose.
For all its great moments, the
Belmont has also crushed the
dreams of many Triple Crown
hopefuls. Twenty-three horses
that won both the Derby and Preakness have failed in their attempt to win the Belmont, including such greats as Silver Charm, Sunday Silence, Alysheba, Northern Dancer and Spectacular Bid.
A record crowd of 120,139 attended the 2004 Belmont when Smarty Jones was denied the Triple Crown by Birdstone, the third straight year a Triple Crown was thwarted in the Belmont. When California Chrome lost the 2014 Belmont, with another Triple Crown on the line, many wondered if the sport would ever see another horse accomplish the feat.
Then came American Pharoah.
Ending the 37-year streak, the son of Pioneerof the Nile became America’s 12th Triple Crown winner in a time of 2:26.65, the sixth-fastest in race history and second-fastest among Triple Crown winners.
“It takes a special horse to get the distance of the Belmont, and American Pharoah was a special horse,” said his jockey Victor Espinoza, a Hall of Famer who came up short of a Triple Crown with War Emblem in 2002, when 70-1 longshot Sarava won the Belmont. “A lot of people thought it would never happen again, but we proved them wrong. Winning the Triple Crown has been the most amazing moment of my life.”
Every horse that has won the Triple Crown has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, and American Pharoah, who will not be eligible until 2021, awaits his chance. He was, as Espinoza said, “the one.”
Story by Brien Bouyea
Photos Courtesy of NYRA and the National Museum of Racing
The Belmont Stakes is the ultimate test of the champion: the defining third act of the Triple Crown, and the most grueling distance of the three races at 1½ miles. It has produced over the last century-and-a-half – the 150th running is June 9 – some of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport.
From the great filly Ruthless winning the first Belmont, to American Pharoah ending a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, the Belmont’s past is as rich as any race in the world.
“I would say the Kentucky Derby remains the most coveted race to win in America, and nothing matches it in terms of pageantry, but the Belmont is a more important race in many years because of what is potentially at stake,”
NEW YORK'S CROWN JEWEL: The Belmont, the Test of the Champion, celebrates its 150th running in 2018
American Pharoah winning the 2015 Belmont and the Triple Crown