A Guide to the Belmont Stakes
The Belmont Stakes is nicknamed "The Test of Champions" for a reason. No horse who enters this famous horse race at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, is likely to forget the experience. In the same way, the millions of fans over the years who have witnessed this race, either in person or on television, are likely to remember the visual experience provided by this grueling, thrilling race.
In terms of the sport of Thoroughbred racing, the Belmont Stakes holds special meaning because it is the third and final race of the Triple Crown, three races that feature the finest three-year-olds in the world. Someone winning all three of the Triple Crown races is a rare accomplishment, with only 13 horses managing this feat in the history of the sport. As a result, whenever a horse enters the Belmont having won the first two legs (the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes), even casual racing fans become engrossed in the possibility that the horse might complete this incredible task.
The Belmont Stakes also stands out for being the oldest of the Triple Crown races, as it was first contested in 1867 and has been held every year but two since. In 2018, Justify won the 150th running of the event as he completed the Triple Crown. Almost as memorable as those who complete the Triple Crown at Belmont are those who suffer the heartbreak of a near-miss in the race after capturing the first two legs.
As for the nickname "The Test of Champions," or more simply, "The Test," that comes from the unforgiving distance of the race. At 1½ miles, the Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races. Considering it also the last of the Triple Crown races in terms of when it is held on the calendar, that extra distance makes it especially difficult for the three-year-olds who have competed in the first two legs.
One of the unique things about the Belmont Stakes is how it has continued through the years despite having to move around a bit. It originated in 1867 at Jerome Park, which was located in the Bronx. The name "Belmont" came from August Belmont Jr., who had financed the building of the track.
The first winner of the race was a filly named Ruthless. Oddly enough, only two other fillies have won the race in the 149 runnings since that day. Jerome Park would soon be replaced as the home of the Belmont Stakes by Morris Park, which would stay the host until Belmont Park was built in 1905.
In 1911 and 1912, the race was cancelled due to legislation in the state of New York that was meant to dissuade gambling. There was also a five-year stretch during the 1960s when the race was held at another New York race track, Aqueduct, due to renovations at Belmont Park.
After several years in which the race was held at several different distances, the Belmont Stakes settled once and for all on the distance of a mile and a half in 1926. As for the Triple Crown, it wasn't really recognized by the press until the middle of the 1930s. By that time, the Belmont had settled into the calendar as the last of the three that comprised the Crown, thereby adding that extra element of suspense to what was already an extremely important race.
Secretariat and the Most Famous Belmont Stakes
Of the 13 horses to win the Triple Crown by closing out the deal at Belmont Park, none have ever captured the public imagination like Secretariat, who managed the feat in 1973. He entered as the prohibitive favorite in the race, so much so that many of the other three-year-old stars skipped the Belmont because they feared that they didn't have a chance at winning. Only four other horses lined up against Secretariat as headed into the starting gate in front of a huge audience at the track and an even bigger one watching on television across the world.
Early on in the race, Sham, who had finished behind Secretariat in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, stayed with him stride for stride. But as they approached the three-quarter mark, Sham began to tire as the heavy favorite took over. As he opened up his lead, the track announcer, Chic Anderson, made one of the most famous calls in sports broadcasting history: "Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!"
Secretariat ended up crossing the line a ridiculous 31 lengths over his closest competitor. His winning time broke the stakes record and still stands as the fastest ever logged by any Thoroughbred in a race at this distance. To this day, Secretariat's performance in the Belmont Stakes is cited by many as the most famous horse race of all time, which is ironic since it was never really close.
Other Famous Triple Crown Winners at the Belmont
Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown winner, capturing the Belmont Stakes to complete the trip in 1919. But at the time, the term "Triple Crown" hadn't been coined, so the public didn't quite respect the accomplishment. In fact, the following year, the legendary Man o' War's 20-length win grabbed far more attention. (Man o' War didn't race in the Kentucky Derby as a three-year-old but won the Preakness and Belmont; he would easily beat Sir Barton in a match race as well.)
When Gallant Fox won the three famous races in a row in 1930, some started using the term "Triple Crown" to describe the feat. By the time Gallant Fox's son, Omaha, did the trick in 1935, people were starting to recognize the achievement. In the 1940s, a true heyday for the sport, unforgettable champions like Count Fleet, Citation, and Whirlaway became Belmont and Triple Crown winners.
The 1970s picked up the tradition of incredible winners. In addition to Secretariat's romping Triple Crown victory, there was the famous rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar that played out in front of the Belmont crowd. After Affirmed had barely beaten Alydar in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the two battled head to head in the long stretch of Belmont Park, with Affirmed coming up a winner by a small margin.
After the victory by Affirmed in 1978, there was a long dry spell for Triple Crown winners. Many horse racing enthusiasts even suggested that the sport should do something to encourage more Triple Crown winners, such as extending the time between races or making them all the same distance. But those concerns were squelched when American Pharoah snapped the drought with a decisive win in the 2015 Belmont Stakes to become the twelfth Triple Crown winner.
The Belmont Stakes has become known as much for heartbreak as for triumph. Positioned as it is as the last of the Triple Crown races on the calendar, the race is the last obstacle to immortality. A combination of the difficulty of the race and some bad racing luck has felled many a Triple Crown contender as they made it to the Belmont. Here are some of the most memorable:
- Canonero II (1971): The Venezuelan horse brought a giant crowd to the Belmont to cheer him on after surprising wins in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but a foot infection led to a 4th-place Belmont finish
- Spectacular Bid (1979): Many thought "The Bid" was the equal of Secretariat. But he wasn't himself on Belmont day, thanks to a freak accident with a safety pin in his hoof that led to an infection
- Charismatic (1999): In a heartbreaking finish, this colt pulled into the Belmont lead before fracturing his leg and ending up third. Jockey Chris Antley famously jumped off the horse and cradled the injured leg, likely saving its life in the process
- Smarty Jones (2004): The horse from humble origins came into the Belmont undefeated and held the lead late. But he coughed it up in the final strides to the upset bid of Birdstone
- I'll Have Another (2012): Perhaps the most depressing Belmont of all was this one, as I'll Have Another was denied his chance at greatness when he had to be scratched the day before the race due to injury
Recent Belmont Stakes Winners
|2014||Tonalist||Joel Rosario||Denied California Chrome a chance for the Triple Crown|
|2015||American Pharoah||Victor Espinoza||Broke the Triple Crown drought with win|
|2016||Creator||Irad Ortiz Jr.||One of his owners was celebrity chef Bobby Flay|
|2017||Tapwrit||Jose Ortiz||Race did not include the winner of the Derby or the Preakness that year|
|2018||Justify||Mike Smith||Second horse trained by Bob Baffert to complete the Triple Crown in four years|
Belmont Stakes Traditions
It is interesting that two of the traditions most associated with the race are actually relatively new additions, created in 1997 to spur the interest of younger fans. The official drink of the race became the Belmont Breeze that year. The punch-like drink is made up primarily of whiskey.
Much more popular was the decision to change the official song of the race to "New York, New York," particularly the version sung by the legendary Frank Sinatra. When the song starts to play just before the post parade of the race, the entire crowd seems to join in and sing along.
Other notable traditions at the venerable race include the garland of white carnations handed out to the winning horse after the race. In addition, there is a famed pine tree that is approximately 300 years old and stands proudly in the paddock area of the track. You can find an image of that tree on the official logo for the track.
How to Bet on the Belmont Stakes
In terms of strategy for betting on the Belmont, you really have to take the longer distance into account. Many of the horses in the field each year come into the race never have gone a mile and a half in a single race. As a result, you have to look closely at how each horse closed out their most recent races.
If a horse that you're looking at has shown consistently that it is passing tiring horses at the end of the race, it could mean that it has the stamina to go the extra distance. On the other hand, those horses that come out of the gate firing but might be slowing up at the lesser distances will have a hard time getting through such a long race with anything in the tank.
As far as how to actually place a bet on the race, you might be lucky enough to see the race in person one day, in which case you can walk up to the betting windows and place your wager. More than likely, however, you will have to find other accommodations. Your nearest horse racing establishment will likely have a simulcast area that will allow you to wager remotely on the Belmont Stakes.
Luckily, the internet provides many opportunities for you to place your bets on "The Test." The Belmont Park website is one such site, or you can go to any of the many horse racing betting sites available. Make sure to do your due diligence to ensure that you don't end up visiting a site that either can't take your bet or won't pay off your winnings.