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Race's 1 1/2 -mile length offers rare challenge

ELMONT, N.Y. — ELMONT, N.Y. - The Belmont Stakes throws down a challenge that is likely unique in the careers of its entrants: the distance of 1 1/2 miles.

Horses competing in the Belmont have not run that far before and likely never will again. But that measure of ground at Belmont Park on New York's Long Island has become critically significant in American racing. It holds the key to the Triple Crown. Win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and a horse must face the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont.

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The Belmont is the oldest of the three races, first run in 1867. And its history is the most varied, having been held at four different New York tracks at 1 1/8 miles, 1 1/4 miles, 1 3/8 miles, 1 1/2 miles and 1 5/8 miles. It settled at Belmont Park in 1905 (except in 1911 and 1912, when it wasn't run, and from 1963 to 1967, when it was contested at Aqueduct while Belmont underwent major renovations). In 1926, its distance stabilized at the current 1 1/2 miles.

Races that long are rare these days. Distances have gradually shortened in American racing, and the Belmont might have been shortened, too, if it weren't part of the Triple Crown. Its place of significance in the country's best-known series probably preserved its 1 1/2 -mile distance, said Tom Gilcoyne, retired historian of the National Museum of Racing.

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Although the Triple Crown is racing's Holy Grail, national recognition came slowly. The Blood-Horse magazine in 1930 referred to the "triple events" of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. In 1935, Daily Racing Form writer Charles Hatton first referred to the three-race series as the Triple Crown.

But it wasn't until 1950, Gilcoyne said, that racing's ruling bodies officially recognized the Triple Crown. By then, eight horses had swept the three races, and none had done it under the present-day schedule of Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles the first Saturday in May, Preakness at 1 3/16 miles two weeks later and Belmont at 1 1/2 miles three weeks after that.

When Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948, the Belmont was four weeks after the Preakness. When the previous five horses won - Assault in 1946, Count Fleet in 1943, Whirlaway in 1941, War Admiral in 1937 and Omaha in 1935 - the Preakness was one week after the Derby. When Gallant Fox won in 1930, the Preakness was eight days before the Derby. And when Sir Barton won in 1919, the Preakness was four days after the Derby.

D. Wayne Lukas, Hall of Fame trainer and winner of 13 Triple Crown races, said it's time to tinker with the series again. And that's not because Lukas has been shut out of the Triple Crown series this year for the first time since 1979; he's been advocating changes for years.

Lukas said the races should be three weeks apart, and the distances should increase with each race. The Derby should be 1 1/8 miles, the Preakness 1 3/16 miles and the Belmont 1 1/4 miles.

He said those changes would help keep fields together throughout the series and help keep horses healthy. Asking a horse early in his 3-year-old season to run 1 1/4 miles in the Derby and then 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont is asking too much, Lukas said.

He acknowledged that his suggestions probably will never be adopted.

"Tradition is so ingrained in our business that it's not going to happen," Lukas said. "But the same people who would oppose it are the same people who said the three-point shot was going to ruin basketball."

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Among those who said the Triple Crown should not be changed are trainers Bob Baffert, Barclay Tagg and John Ward Jr.

"It's perfect the way it is," said Baffert, who fell short of three Triple Crowns when his horses lost the Belmont. "That's what makes it so interesting: They still have to go a mile and a half."

NOTE: In his first visit to the Belmont racing surface, Smarty Jones galloped yesterday under restraint from John Servis, his trainer, who rode alongside on his pony. Servis said Smarty Jones seemed to like the track.

"He bounced over it kind of like he did at Churchill," Servis said. "I'm really happy with him."

Tomorrow's field

PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds

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1 Master David Bobby Frankel Jose Santos 20-1

2 Purge Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 5-1

3 Caiman Angel Medina Ramon Dominguez 50-1

4 Birdstone Nick Zito Edgar Prado 15-1

5 Rock Hard Ten Jason Orman Alex Solis 8-1

6 Royal Assault Nick Zito Pat Day 20-1

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7 Tap Dancer Edward Allard Javier Castellano 50-1

8 Eddington Mark Hennig Jerry Bailey 10-1

9 Smarty Jones John Servis Stewart Elliott 2-5


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