Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Belmont will grind your dreams to make its bread

The track at historic Belmont Park is huge. Like Alaska, it's probably bigger than you would imagine. At one and a half miles, it is the longest dirt track in North America. But for myself, as a horse racing fan, no part of the big track seems longer than the cruel homestretch, where 11 Triple Crown bids have failed since the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978.

The Belmont Stakes is an unforgiving extinguisher of dreams. "The Test of Champions" is an exacting one. The horses in the race have never raced more than a mile and a quarter, so that whole long stretch drive in new territory. Until five weeks before the Belmont, they hadn't run in a race longer than a mile and an eighth. Any horse trying to win the Triple Crown has to deal with three weeks of media attention leading up to the Belmont, more rested horses who aren't running in their third race in five weeks and the obvious weight of expectation to liberate the sport from its Triple Crown drought.

Horse racing fans and the industry yearn for a Triple Crown winner. The current 34-year drought is longest ever since Sir Barton became the first of the 11 Triple Crown winners in 1919. Since I began following horse racing in the mid-90s, there have been seven horses race in the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. It's been a slew of near-misses, bizarre upsets and breakdowns.

1997: Silver Charm won the Derby and Preakness in dramatic fashion, showing great heart and landing on the cover of USA Today. Silver Charm stuck his distinctive silver, gray and white head out front in the Belmont, leading with 50 yards to go. But Touch Gold roared past Silver Charm deep in that great, interminable homestretch, thwarting the Triple Crown bid.

1998: Real Quiet, like Silver Charm, was trained by Bob Baffert, and took the lead in the homestretch of the Belmont. Have you ever seen in horse racing movies where all the characters urge the jockey to make his move, but the savvy jockey waits just a beat longer and then goes? Real Quiet's jockey, Kent Desormeaux, is very accomplished, but most people say he made his move too soon. It's hard to "hold your fire 'till you see the whites of their eyes." Real Quiet raced to about a five-length lead, but Victory Gallop reeled him in. I remember thinking, "He's gonna do it! This is happening! ...Uh ...Um ...Where is that finish line?!? Where is it?!? ... ... ... (unable to muster words)" Victory Gallup by a nose.

1999: Ridden by the sometimes troubled Chris Antley, trained by the legendary D. Wayne Lukas, Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby as a 31-1 longshot, then won the Preakness to set up his bid for history. The horse was running third when he pulled up lame in the homestretch with a broken leg. Antley was credited for realizing the injury quickly, dismounting, and holding the horse's leg up to avoid further damage, likely saving Charismatic's life. Antley's life spiraled downward after that, and 18 months later he was found dead under mysterious circumstances.

2002: War Emblem looked strong winning the first two legs and giving Baffert a third shot at a Triple Crown. But War Emblem stumbled out of the starting gate in the Belmont. He recovered to briefly take the lead on the final turn, but he was spent. In a stunning result, 70-1 Sarava raced to the win, becoming the longest shot winner in Belmont Stakes history.

2003: A group of "regular" people owned Funny Cide, bringing an everyman appeal to this Triple Crown bid. But in an example of why it's so tough to achieve the feat, Empire Maker, beaten by Funny Cide in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and came to Belmont Park more rested. Empire Maker ran away from Funny Cide in the homestretch, winning by 5 1/4 lengths.

2004: As much or more than any recent Triple Crown bid, Smarty Jones' effort in 2004 had racing fans thinking history was likely. Smarty Jones went off as a 1-5 favorite in the Belmont, and 21.9 million people watched the race on TV, the most since the 1970s. But alas, 36-1 long shot Birdstone won, breaking hearts and leading Birdstone's jockey, trainer and owner to apologize that Smarty Jones didn't win.

2008: Big Brown seemed invincible. He won both of his races before the Kentucky Derby, then won the Derby by 4 3/4 lengths. He won the Preakness by 5 1/4 lengths. The horse's backstory wasn't one of the heartwarming tales common to horse racing; he was essentially owned by a hedge fund and his trainer admitted to giving Big Brown and other horses steroids that were banned in some states, just not the ones that host Triple Crown races. But most fans simply wanted a Triple Crown winner, and Big Brown seemed to be the horse for the job. His, um, confident trainer said it was a "foregone conclusion" that the horse would win the Belmont and the Triple Crown. The Test of Champions does not appreciate arrogance, it would seem. Big Brown fought his jockey early in the race, then somewhat mysteriously eased up in the homestretch, finishing last as 38-1 long shot D'Tara won (seeing a pattern?). Big Brown had previously had a cracked hoof, but that was believed to be taken care of. I've read that the horse may have had a shoe loose, but it still seems a bit controversial why jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled him up. In any event, Big Brown's fighting his jockey's efforts to hold him back early didn't do any favors for the horse's chances of winning. The drought lives on.

Saturday, I'll Have Another will become the 12th horse during the ongoing drought to race for the Triple Crown in the Belmont. He'll start from the outside post position, and face horses who ran in the Derby but skipped the Preakness to rest. History tells the story of how difficult it will be for I'll Have Another to prevail. If the above recent history has taught us anything, it's that should I'll Have Another come barreling down that famous homestretch and win on Saturday, the horse will have achieved something remarkable.

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