History of the Belmont: On the 150th anniversary of the Stakes, we look back through the years

The race has been around longer than New York icons such as the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building and even the Yankees.

Construction began on the bridge in 1870, Lady Liberty in 1875, and the Empire State Building in 1930. The Yankees, known first as the Baltimore Orioles, were founded in 1901, became the New York Highlanders, and by the time the Highlanders changed their name to the Yankees in 1913, the Belmont Stakes had already been running for almost 50 years.

The race, named after August Belmont, a New York businessman and political influencer who owned and trained racehorses, is more than 100 years older than that other signature local race, the New York City Marathon.

This weekend, they’ll race the Belmont Stakes for the 150th time and after all these years, the actual stakes remain high with yet another horse, Justify, arriving in Elmont with Triple Crown dreams. That’s the essence of Belmont lore, the longest and oldest of the racing majors, the final, finicky leg of the Triple Crown that’s coronated racing kings the likes of Whirlaway, Citation, Secretariat and Affirmed, but with even more frequency, Belmont’s mammoth, sandy track has swallowed the stalled bids of so many other would-be champions.

Will Justify become the 13th Triple Crown winner? Or will he become the 24th trifecta hopeful to wither in the “Test of Champions”?

Here’s a look back at the long and legendary history of the Belmont Stakes and the awesome task that awaits Justify.

IN THE BEGINNING

The inaugural running, held Thursday, June 19, 1867, took place not in Elmont, L.I., but in the Bronx. The old Jerome Park Racetrack, which sat on the current site of Lehman College, hosted the Belmont Stakes for more than 20 years until 1890.

LADIES FIRST

The first Stakes was won by a filly named Ruthless. Francis Morris, her owner, won $1,850 and a saddle.

To date, only 23 fillies have run in the Belmont Stakes. Ruthless, Tanya (1905) and Rags to Riches (2007) are the only ones to win.

“It was certainly the most thrilling race I’ve been involved in and the most excited I’ve been watching a race,” Rags to Riches trainer Todd Pletcher recently said, via the New York Racing Association. “Over the years, people have told me it was one of their most memorable races as well.”

Rags to Riches stumbled out of the gate but in one of the sport’s enduring images of heart and grit, she managed to get back up and win the race.

“When Rags to Riches finally stuck her head in front, it was excitement, it was jubilation, it was everything you could hope for in a horse race,” Pletcher said. “She was the first filly in more than 100 years to win the Belmont, and she did it at our home course.”

NEXT STOP, ELMONT

Before Belmont Park opened, the Stakes were first held at Jerome Park and then in 1890, moved to Morris Park, near Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The original Belmont Park opened in 1905 in Elmont on Long Island with a seating capacity of 11,000.

The iron gates from Jerome Park Racetrack, which depict an image of the first Belmont Stakes held in the Bronx, are preserved in the clubhouse.

Belmont Park hosted a crowd of 150,000 to watch a Wright Brothers aerial race in 1910, but was forced to close in 1911 and 1912 when horse racing was outlawed in New York. Racing resumed in 1913. The park underwent a massive renovation that was completed in 1968 and included construction of the largest grandstand in racing.

By 2020, the Islanders’ new arena is set to open at Belmont as the facility undergoes its latest transformation.

TRIPLE CROWN BORN

The Belmont Stakes was inaugurated in 1867, followed by the Preakness in 1873 and then the Kentucky Derby in 1875. No horse won all three races in the same year until Sir Barton did it in 1919, the first to achieve the elusive Triple Crown.

The term was lightly used by newspapers like the New York Times earlier, but it wasn’t until Gallant Fox became the second horse to win all three in 1930 that “Triple Crown” became ubiquitous. Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton is credited with popularizing the term.

Five years after Gallant Fox’s win, his son Omaha won the Belmont Stakes to become the third Triple Crown winner.

WINNER’S CIRCLE

In 149 years, a total of 12 thoroughbreds have successfully completed the Triple Crown at the Belmont. Their margins of victory fall between Secretariat’s 31-length dusting of the field in 1973 to Affirmed, who won by a head in 1978.

To this day, a blue-and-white striped pole stands 31½ lengths short of the finish line to mark Secretariat’s record-setting run.

Secretariat set the world record for the fastest mile-and-a-half that spring with a 2:24 gallop that remains the sport’s gold standard. The run also marked the start of a memorable string of Triple Crown greats that included Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.

“Our plan for the Belmont was basic,” said Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen, who was 18 years old when he rode in that historic race. “I would send Affirmed to the lead. I would nurse his speed along as well as was humanly possible. And I would count on his love of a fight to get us home against an arch-rival who would again not be easy to deny.”

The 1978 Belmont Stakes went down as one of the classic races in history and produced the third Triple Crown winner in five years.

There would not be another for one for 37 years.

THE FAILURES

Plenty of horses have come close. Agonizingly close. Since 1932, 23 horses have come to Belmont after winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to falter on the track known as “Big Sandy.”

It happened at least once a decade since, including five times in the 1960s and three times in the ’80s. When Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic all lost the Belmont in consecutive years in 1997, 1998 and 1999, respectively, and then War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones failed in 2002, 2003 and 2004, respectively, it felt like we might never see another Triple Crown winner again.

A NEW CHAMPION

Finally, in 2015, after a 37-year wait, a new Triple Crown winner emerged. American Pharoah snapped the long drought going back to Affirmed in 1978 and supplied a wire-to-wire victory that placed him among the sport’s legends. American Pharoah’s win at Belmont was the second-fastest time for a Triple Crown winner behind Secretariat’s signature run.

“There was a very good reason no horse had won the Triple Crown in 37 years,” American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat recently said. “It is that difficult.”

THE TRADITIONS

There are many reminders of Belmont Park’s 113-year history around the grounds. Here are some of the more noticeable traditions that remain alive at the iconic track:

The White Gate

On the perimeter of the grounds facing Hempstead Turnpike, the white gate was preserved from the original Belmont.

Chaplains’ Rock

A plaque honoring four chaplains who were among the 672 Americans who died during a World War II torpedo attack on the S.S. Dorchester.

The White Pine

According to legend, the Japanese White Pine near the Paddock that is on the Belmont Park logo, was planted in 1826. During the track’s reconstruction in the mid-1960s, the tree was supposed to be cut down but it remains a staple of the grounds.

Woody’s Corner

There’s a shrine to legendary five-time-winning trainer Woody Stephens at the main Clubhouse entrance.

Jerome Park Gates

The iron gates from Jerome Park Racetrack, which depict an image of the the first Belmont Stakes held in the Bronx, are preserved in the clubhouse.

BELMONT BY THE NUMBERS

A numerical look at the Stakes:

90,000

Number of fans at Belmont Park who watched American Pharoah win the Triple Crown in 2015

2,015

Number of horses all-time to start the Belmont Stakes

700

Number of carnations used to make the blanket draped on the winning horse

31½

The record margin of victory in lengths by Secretariat in his 1973 Triple Crown win

12

Number of horses that have won the Belmont Stakes to become Triple Crown champions

3

Number of fillies to win the Belmont Stakes

2:24

Fastest winning time for the Belmont Stakes, set by Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1973

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
72°