Belmont the Thorn In Side Of Past Triple Crown Contenders
by Trevor Whenham - 05/20/2008
As a huge horse racing fan I am simultaneously incredibly excited and full of dread when it comes to the next three weeks. I'm excited because I was too young to appreciate the only two Triple Crown wins I was alive for, and there is nothing in sports I want to see more. The dread comes because we have been this close so many times before only to come up short. My heart has been ripped out each time, and it will be again if Big Brown doesn't pull it off here. Since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978 Big Brown is the 11th horse to go into the Belmont with a shot at eternal glory. Though none have pulled it off, many have come agonizingly close.
1979 - Spectacular Bid. After wins by Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978 it must have seemed like the Triple Crown had become too easy to win. Spectacular Bid was a beautiful, dominant horse who looked to have the Belmont in the bag. He never fired in the Belmont, though, and ended up a dismal third. Though it was never officially confirmed, the rumor is that a safety pin punctured the horse's foot the day before the race and caused more discomfort than he could handle.
1981 - Pleasant Colony. This horse was a giant, and he looked as gangly and uncoordinated as a horse can. He was a disappointing fifth in the Florida Derby, so his connections fired his trainer. The change worked - he won the Wood Memorial, Derby and Preakness before finishing third to Summing in the Belmont.
1987 - Alysheba. This one hurt. Alysheba won the Derby despite stumbling in the stretch. He'd had surgery to deal with a breathing problem just months before. He had overcome all of that, so he seemed invincible. Not so much. He was fourth in the Belmont, and that race was won by Bet Twice - he blew away the field by 14 lengths in one of the most dominant Belmont performances in history.
1989 - Sunday Silence. Affirmed and Alydar had an epic battle in 1978, and Sunday Silence and Easy Goer had another one here. Easy Goer was the favorite in the Derby, but Sunday Silence won by more than two lengths. In the Preakness he won again, but this time by an impossibly small margin after a stunningly dramatic stretch duel. Easy Goer got his revenge in the Belmont, beating Sunday Silence by eight lengths.
1997 - Silver Charm. Bob Baffert got pretty good at coming close, and this is where it all started. Silver Charm proved himself to be a super horse over his career, and he showed incredible class in winning the first two legs. It looked like the wait for the Triple Crown ended as he entered the stretch at Belmont. He was in the lead and looking strong. Unfortunately, Touch Gold was just a bit stronger. Silver Charm was second by less than a length.
1998 - Real Quiet. It only took a year for Baffert to return for another try. Real Quiet was a bizarre looking horse - not very big and with a narrow chest. He sure could run, though. If Silver Charm's near win was hard to take, then this one was truly crushing. With less than a quarter mile remaining the horse was up by four lengths and looked to have it won. But then Victory Gallop mounted a late charge and Real Quiet tried to hold on. He obviously didn't, but if his nose had been just a little longer he would have - it was that close.
1999 - Charismatic. This one was incredibly unlikely. Charismatic had run in a claiming race in February, and he was a 31/1 longshot in the Derby that no one was paying much attention to. He won that race by a neck and won the Preakness by a couple of lengths. Again, he looked good coming into the stretch at the Belmont. He ended up third, but broke two bones in his leg in the stretch and had to be pulled up at the finish line. The image of jockey Chris Antley jumping off him and grabbing his leg to protect him is one of the enduring images in the sport.
2002 - War Emblem. After a front-running win in the Illinois Derby, War Emblem wired the field to win the Derby. His Preakness win showed that he could rate if he had to. That meant that Bob Baffert was back for a third shot at the Triple Crown. It was an absolute disaster. The horse stumbled out of the gate, and he never fired. His eighth-place finish is the worst ever by a horse trying for the Triple Crown.
2003 - Funny Cide. This New York-bred gelding became a star when he upset the solidly favored Empire Maker in the Derby. He dominated the Preakness by nine lengths and it seemed like we finally had our winner. Nope. Empire Maker skipped the Preakness to rest, and he was too much for Funny Cide in the Belmont. Funny Cide ended up third. In an interesting twist, Big Brown is currently living in Empire Maker's stall at Belmont.
2004 - Smarty Jones. The last horse to come close is uncomfortably reminiscent of Big Brown. Like Big Brown he was the undefeated Derby favorite. Like Big Brown, he had more than a few critics going into that race because he hadn't really been tested. Like Big Brown, he won that race pretty impressively. Like Big Brown, he made a mockery of the Preakness. Smarty Jones actually doubled Big Brown's winning margin. Hopefully, though, that is where the similarities end. Smarty Jones had the lead in the stretch, but he couldn't hold off a late charge by 36/1 shot Birdstone and ended up second.