Friday, 25 May 2018 11:56

A Look at Belmont Park & The Test of Champions

By Joseph Raucci | News

Belmont Park is now and always has been America’s foremost racing venue. The all-time greats of the sport have made their way to this Mecca of Racing since 1905, when it first opened its gates to an awaiting public. It would be at a mile and a half, this hemisphere largest racing oval. The clubhouse entrance featured a long reflecting pool, leading to a magnificent fountain lined with towering ash trees. The final change was a long, decorative green and white striped awning that welcomed the elite of the sporting world. Unique to Belmont was seating atop the grandstand roof. As with its upstate counterpart Saratoga, it featured a spacious paddock area. Belmont Park was grand in every way. After the 1962 season the old stands were torn down and a modern, more majestic building arose. The new plant reopened in 1968. It was perfect timing. Five years later a chestnut colt by the name of Secretariat would walk onto the track looking to make history. 

The Belmont Stakes fits this palace to perfection. Belmont Park may have loomed large. The race itself would become monumental. The most important events for three-year olds are the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. We know this series as the Triple Crown. It was not until 1930 that the three races were given that distinction. The great Charles Hatton, the premier turf writer in this country for a generation, coined the phrase in the year of Gallant Fox. The Belmont Stakes was now cemented as the final jewel of America’s Triple Crown. The Kentucky Derby is the first and most well-known of the events. Known as “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports,” it is contested at one and one quarter miles on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. Two weeks later it’s on to Pimlico for the second jewel. The Preakness, with its shorter distance lends favor to the Derby winner. No less than thirty-two warriors have claimed both races. Three weeks later the action shifts to Belmont Park. It is there that we separate the men from the boys. When the horses enter the starting gate, the toughest challenge in turfdom awaits them. Once around the mile and a half oval is a grueling seemingly endless run for a shot at immortality. Just twelve times the creme de la crème of the sport have been able to navigate the distance and claim the Triple Crown. 

1973 will always rank as a year that stands out in the annals of the sport. Secretariat came to Belmont Park with every intention of taking the Crown. It would be the first time since the great champion Citation made the list in 1948. Now Secretariat was poised to join him. He had just set track records in the Derby and then the Preakness Stakes. Now his eyes were firmly set on the Belmont Trophy. The race was never in doubt. Future Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte let him loose midway down the backstretch. He left his only competition, bridesmaid Sham in his wake. The big horse began to widen his ever-growing lead. Race caller Chic Anderson made this spot-on observation: “He is moving like a tremendous machine.” And that he was. With every massive stride he increased the lead. At the top of the stretch he was a dozen lengths in front. In a jaw dropping performance, Secretariat hit the finish line thirty-one lengths in front of his nearest competitor. He had annihilated the field. Add to that a new track record, and the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-five years. A super star was born that June day. One that continues to burn bright and will for all time.

You can never know what to expect on Belmont day. Will there be a Triple Crown winner in the offing? Or how about another great, such as Native Dancer or Damascus, the Derby losers who won both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to stamp their horse shoes in the lore of the sport. Or maybe one like Arts and Letters or Easy Goer, those that came so close in the first two jewels, then close in the first two jewels, then vindicated themselves in the Belmont. We do know one thing for sure. When Sinatra lights up the crowd with “New York, New York,” it is just a ten-minute wait until the bell rings, the gate opens and they’re off for the running of “The Test of Champions.”

The Racing Gods have rained down a bolt of lightning, with hooves of thunder in this Spring of 2018. This lightly raced chestnut colt named Justify has captured the hearts of an adoring racing public. He easily took the Derby. Then it was on to Pimlico and a Preakness thriller. He stands unbeaten and poised to become the thirteenth winner of the Triple Crown. The grandeur that is Belmont Park awaits his arrival.

Here is the Roll Call:

Sir Barton          
Gallant Fox
War Admiral
Count Fleet 
Seattle Slew
American Pharoah

These select few have defied all the odds. In a five-week period they did what sets them apart from the mere mortals of their breed. Then there were the twenty that came to Long Island to chase the dream of joining the immortal twelve. That list includes such grand names as Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence, Carry Back and Northern Dancer, to name a few. Let’s not forget Saratoga’s own Funny Cide. Jack Knowlton, Gus Williams, and company also had their shot. None could conquer the demanding twelve furlongs of fury that is the Belmont Stakes.

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