Another 3-Year-Old Chases Elusive Triple Crown
By GREG MELIKOV
Nineteen times since World War II horses went into the Belmont Stakes and a possible date with destiny to become a Triple Crown champion.
Nineteen times the racing gods crushed dreams since 1944 when Pensive lost by a half-length to Bounding Home. Actually, Belmont Park has been the Graveyard of Champions, even more so than Saratoga.
Since Affirmed edged Alydar in ’78, I’ve had my fingers crossed 11 times that we’d see another Triple Crown champ.
Back in ’79, Spectacular Bid, the 1-5 favorite in a field of eight, looked unbeatable riding a 12-race winning streak that including seven straight victories as a sophomore.
The son of Bold Bidder, attempting to become the fourth Triple Crown champ during the ’70s, was bumped at the break and fell behind early. However, by the time he hit the stretch he was in command.
But Spectacular Bid weakened in the drive and wound up third. After the race, trainer Bud Delp revealed a safety pin had been found in one of his hooves the morning of the race. That caused a serious infection and the colt was sidelined for a while.
Big Brown was the last 3-year-old with high hopes in ’08 of accomplishing America’s most treasured racing feat. But he failed to finish the 1 ½ miles.
The Belmont Stakes has been staged at three different distances from 1 ¼ to 1 5/8 miles since 1867, when the filly Ruthless won the inaugural by a head.
In 1874, the race was reduced to the current 1 ½ miles and Saxon triumphed by a neck. In 1890-92 and 1895, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown was cut to 1 ¼ miles, the only times it was the same distance as the Kentucky Derby.
From 1896 through 1925, it was boosted to the original 1 5/8 miles, when American Flag scored by eight lengths. Since ’26, when Crusader won by a length, the Belmont has been 1 ½ miles.
The closest finish in recent years came on June 6, 1998, when trainer Bob Baffert had his second of three chances in six years with Real Quiet to saddle a Triple Crown winner.
Up by four lengths at the eighth pole over 10 challengers, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner began to shorten stride and bear out, which some experts said would have disqualified him if Victory Gallop hadn’t got his nose in front.
The previous year Silver Charm vied for the lead several times in the seven-horse field before getting in front of Free House during the drive. Then Touch Gold appeared on the far outside in deep stretch and rocketed to the wire first by three-quarters of a length.
In ’02, Baffert’s War Emblem, facing 10 rivals, stumbled and nearly fell to his knees leaving the gate. After working his way from fifth to the lead after six furlongs, he dropped out of contention at the top of the stretch and ran eighth to Sarava, longest shot on the tote board and as the highest-paying horse to win in Belmont history, paying a whopping $142.50 for a $2 win ticket.
By the way, the term ‘‘Triple Crown’’ was coined in 1930 by Charles Hatton when he wrote in the Daily Racing Form about Gallant Fox’s three victories — in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont.