Thursday, 06 June 2024 12:35

THE BELMONT STAKES: The History, The Distances, The Champions

By Joe Raucci | News
Seattle Slew.. One of the immortals who took the Belmont Stakes and later left his mark at the Spa.. Seattle Slew.. One of the immortals who took the Belmont Stakes and later left his mark at the Spa..

The Belmont Stakes is without question one of America’s greatest horse races. It has gained its prestige for many reasons. Let’s take a look at them.

The race, although long associated with Belmont Park, had its origins prior to being held there. The race actually dates back to 1867. It made its debut at Jerome Park. The track was owned by August Belmont Sr, the agent for the Rothschild families holdings on this continent and Wall Street financier Leonard Jerome. Of note, Jerome also was one of the original co-owners of Saratoga racetrack. The first running of the race was at 1 5/8 miles and won by a three year old filly named Ruthless. She lived up to her name when she romped home against her male opponents in the Travers Stakes here later that summer.

The race was run at its present distance of 1 1/2 miles for a short time beginning in 1874. In the following years it was conducted at distances from 1 1/8 to 1 3/8 miles. With the closure of Jerome Park in 1890, the race found a new home at nearby Morris Park.

When the Westchester Racing Association opened the original version of Belmont Park in 1905, the race became a permanent fixture there. Some of the early winners include the likes of the great unbeaten champion Colin in 1907. Sir Barton entered the winner’s circle in 1919. He is considered to be the first winner of The Triple Crown, although that term did not originate until the 1930s. The one and only Man o’ War strutted his stuff a year later in 1920. America’s greatest racehorse walked home in spectacular fashion, eased up twenty lengths clear of the field.

In 1926 the race was lengthened from 1 3/8 to its present distance of 1 1/2 miles. Belair Stables Gallant Fox became the second Triple Crown champion and the first to navigate the longer distance in 1930. Since then a Who’s Who of American racehorses have competed for the exquisite Belmont Stakes Trophy. Many have reached out to immortality in taking the race. The thirteen Triple Crown winners lead the way. Then there are the likes of Native Dancer, Nashua, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Damascus, Easy Goer, A.P. Indy and Point Given. They showed their mettle and tenacity in winning the “The Test of Champions.”

Belmont Park was rebuilt during the early 1960s. The makeover would close the venue for five years. During that period the race was moved to Aqueduct Racetrack.

This created a dilemma. At Belmont the circumference of the track is 1 1/2 miles. Aqueduct on the other hand is a 1 1/8 miles oval. The same can be said of Saratoga’s configuration. The NYRA top brass at the time made the decision to keep the race at its historic distance. This meant that the race would start close to the far turn leading into the stretch, and then once around the Aqueduct oval. For five years beginning in 1963 the plan, though not ideal, worked with no mishaps. Belmont re-opened in 1968.

There were no changes made to the race until the dreaded Covid 19 made its appearance in 2020. Like everything else the racing world was turned upside down. The race was run at a distance of 1 1/8 miles and complicating things further, preceded both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

There was an eerie feeling on race day as patrons were not allowed to enter Belmont Park for the event.

Four years later Belmont Park finds itself being reconstructed for its second rebirth. “The Test of Champions” has the perfect temporary home here at Saratoga. This weekend all roads will lead to the Spa for a spectacular four days of racing loaded with an abundance of high caliber stakes races highlighted by the Belmont Stakes.

NYRA has decided to run the race at 1 1/4 miles, the same distance as the Kentucky Derby and the Travers Stakes.

These are different times than the five years that Aqueduct kept the race at its historic distance. Surely there are concerns that the start off of the turn may cause a mishap that would put the horses and jockeys in peril. The thought had crossed my mind that lengthening the race to 1 5/8 miles for the two years might have been a better remedy.

The race would start midway down the backstretch taking any problem on the turn out of play.

To get a definitive answer, I reached out to Ed Bowen, a prolific writer and historian with decades of familiarity with horse racing.

He answered it this way:

“I think the idea has some appeal, but there is a countering point in my mind. That is, since 1 1/2 miles is regarded today as such a test of stamina for a three- year- old in June that going even farther is worrisome as perhaps too much. All things are generalizations, whereas horses are individuals, of course, but as a point of stewardship of the well- being of the horses I think that going to 1 5/8 miles is a negative.

Enough has changed since the 19th Century phase when the Belmont WAS run at 1 5/ 8 miles that I don’t think that phase is a precedent easily applied today.”

There you have it. That being said, the race is still at a formidable distance. American racehorses are accustomed to the most important races being run at 1 1/4 miles. The lone exception is the Belmont Stakes. It is still a daunting task when considering the fact that these racehorses are stretched to their outer limits going serious distances three times in five weeks.

The time has come. Belmont at Saratoga is here. Saturday at approximately 6:30 PM the horses will prance on to the track. The crowd will go silent as the voice of Frank Sinatra belts out the Belmont theme song “ New York, New York.” Ten minutes later the contestants will enter the starting gate. They’re all in..and they’re off for the 156th running of the Belmont Stakes!

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