The Brock Talk

Monday, June 6, 2011

Belmont Iconic Regardless of Triple Crown

Since Shackleford dug in on his left lead in the final strides of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) two weeks ago, holding off Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Animal Kingdom, we’ve known there will be no Triple Crown winner in 2011. It will be 33 years to the day Friday, since Affirmed and the young jockey Steve Cauthen captured the attention of America by holding off the nemisis Alydar by head to win the Belmont Stakes after taking the Derby and Preakness in 1978.

Therefor, the crowd at Belmont Park Saturday will not be as big as the crowd if Animal Kingdom had been going for the illustrious Triple Crown; and the television ratings probably won’t be as strong. The mediocrity of this group of thoroughbreds has also been concluded by those analysts who calculate such equine performance evaluations and not widely disputed by many outside the Beyers and Ragozins of the world.

But you have to give this 2011 class of 3-year-olds some credit – on many different fronts quite frankly. They have been a sound bunch compared to some classes in front of them. Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner Archarcharch has been retired due to an injury he suffered in the Kentucky Derby, but most of the other 2008 3-year-old colt models are either still racing or in an extended pit stop.

In fact, the last three stars to leave the Triple Crown trail are all expected to return to the races. Premier Pegasus, scratched just days before going to the gate as the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) favorite, is recovering from his surgery to repair a hair line fracture in his left front cannon bone and may return to the races this summer. San Vincente Stakes (gr. II) and Rebel Stakes (gr. II) winner The Factor is recovering from similar surgery and trainer Bob Baffert has said the August 27 Foxwood’s King’s Bishop Stakes(gr. I) at Saratoga is the target for the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) favorite. Uncle Mo, the champion 2-year-old male from last year and favorite to win the Derby for most of the winter, was scratched the day before the race not because of injury, but problems with his liver, (cholangeohepatitis for those scoring at home.) There is optimism that last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I)winner will again race if efforts to treats his current condition succeed.

Having nineteen from a given class start in the Kentucky Derby is nothing special, but this group came right back and filled up the gate with 14 starting in the Preakness and there are 11 probable and three additional possible starters for the Belmont Stakes. That is partially due to a lack of an intimidating star, but as Jay Privman pointed out in his Daily Racing Form column, it may be the first time ever that the first seven finishers in the Kentucky Derby also start in the Belmont. As Privman also said, even if the top six finishers in the Derby start in the Belmont, it will be history. It has been since 1950 since the first five Derby finishers came back to run in the Belmont Stakes.

This group is not the most accomplished: there are only three 2011 stakes victories between Shackleford and Animal Kingdom and multiple graded stakes winners in the class since the first of the year can be counted on one hand. Long shot winners dominated the races leading up to the Triple Crown with the Florida Derby the only grade 1 race on dirt this year with a single digit win pay-off.

Even with no chance of a Triple Crown winner, both Animal Kingdom and Shackleford have an opportunity to join a fairly elite group that has won two legs of the Triple Crown and not the other. Only eleven horses have won the Kentucky Derby, lost in the Preakness, then won the Belmont. Coincidentally, eleven others have lost in the Derby, then come back to win the Preakness and Belmont. Seven others have won the Preakness and Belmont without running in the Kentucky Derby, but all of those were in 1922 and before when the Preakness was run before the Kentucky Derby.

The last to pull of the Derby-Belmont double was Thunder Gulch in 1995 with Swale (1984), Bold Forbes (’76), Chateaugay (’63), Needles (’56) and Zev (’23) among them as well. All were named champions in their respective years.

Among the eleven to win the Preakness and Belmont after losing the Derby, ten of those were named champions including Afleet Alex (2005), Point Given (’01), Hansel (1991), Risen Star (’88), Little Current (’74), Damascus (’67), Nashua (’55), Native Dancer (’53), Capot (’49) and Bimelech in 1940. Tabasco Cat in 1994 was the only member of that fraternity not to be named champion.

Certainly though, the Belmont Stakes is an iconic sporting event in North America regardless of a potential Triple Crown winner or not. Since the race was first run at Jerome Park in 1867, 59 of its winners have been named the champion 3-year-old colt or gelding of their respective years.

Three times, the Belmont Park crowd has exceeded 100,000 on-track fans with the largest crowd coming in 2004 when 120,139 came to watch Birdstone stop the Triple Crown bid of Smarty Jones. Large crowds of between 45,000 and 70,000 are typical on Belmont day.

The Belmont is also the oldest of the Triple Crown races predating the first Preakness (1873) by six years and the first Kentucky Derby (1875) by eight years. The Belmont Stakes is one of the oldest races in North America with the Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland (1831), the Queen’s Plate (1864) at Woodbine in Canada and the Travers Stakes (1864) at Saratoga older. However, the Belmont, which will be run for the 143rd time in 2011, is third to the Phoenix (159th running in 2011) and Queens Plate (152nd running in 2011) in total runnings. The Travers has had gaps in its history and its 142nd running will be in 2011.

For those reasons, the Belmont Stakes has plenty of history and prestige and the winner will be deserving of the all that comes with winning the American classic.

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