The only true sign of an exciting sports event is if it can get you to start yelling at the TV.
A few weekends ago, as I sat on my couch celebrating cable’s return to my life, I came across the Preakness Stakes on NBC, the second leg of horseracing’s Triple Crown. The Triple Crown is a series of three races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes) for the nation’s top three-year-old thoroughbred horses. If a horse is able to win all three races, they enter one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sports. In the last 95 years, only 11 horses have completed the trifecta, eight of which occurred before 1950.
Like most viewers of the Preakness, my focus was on a horse named California Chrome, winner of the Triple Crown’s first leg, the Kentucky Derby, and the favorite in the Preakness. If California Chrome were to win, only one more victory, in June 7th’s Belmont Stakes, would be needed to secure the first successful Triple Crown since 1978.
Back to yelling at the TV. This year’s Preakness Stakes, a race that is just over a mile long and takes about two minutes to complete, was wild. By the final turn, I was yelling so loudly that my Dad came running in to see what the hell was going on. If you don’t get goosebumps at the 1:35 mark of the video below, you probably have no emotions.
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So with two wins under his belt, California Chrome, guided by jockey Victor Espinoza, will head to Elmont, NY, for the (add a B) Belmont Stakes, where thirteen consecutive attempts at the Triple Crown have come to die since 1978.
To best understand the 36-year drought, one must consider the nature of the Belmont racetrack. The course is a mile and a half long, lengthier than both the Derby and the Preakness, and is famous for punishing frontrunners in the race’s final stretch.
Let’s take a look at a few foiled attempts of recent memory to grasp the course’s challenges.
2004 Belmont Stakes: Smarty Jones, winner of the Triple Crown’s first two legs, was an enormous favorite, having just won the Preakness by a record 11 ½ lengths. Rounding the final turn at Belmont, Smarty Jones had a seemingly insurmountable lead. Then this happened (skip to the 2:00 mark).
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That race was over. Birdstone, the eventual winner, was a 36-1 long shot and post-race analysis pointed to his skill over long distances as the reason for his powerful finishing ability. Clearly, at Belmont, stamina trumps speed, an important consideration for any horse pondering a quick start.
1997 Belmont Stakes: If you thought that was bad, meet Silver Charm. The 1997 contender for the Triple Crown won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in two excruciatingly close contests, and seemed destined to do the same in the Belmont. Entering the home stretch, Silver Charm and two other horses do battle to the line. (skip to the 2:05 mark)
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A theme is developing. Since 1978, when Affirmed won the Triple Crown, contenders have lost in seemingly every way possible. Big lead? Caught from behind. Battle to the finish? Edged at the line. At Belmont, no lead is safe and no result is impossible.
1998 Belmont Stakes: For our grand finale, I give you a photo finish with no winner determined for three minutes. Real Quiet, the horse contending for the Crown, was so far ahead in this race, even the announcer had started his Triple Crown speech. Watch one of the most unfathomable losses in horseracing history below. (skip to the 2:05 mark)
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Tomorrow, it will be California Chrome’s turn. Both of his wins have been impressive, but, as we have seen, the Belmont Stakes is a whole different beast. In addition to the increased distance, jockey Victor Espinoza should expect to face a strong field of competitors, including some horses that skipped the Preakness for a shot at Belmont fully rested. Also, looming large is likely-contestant Ride on Curlin, who finished second in the Preakness, and is expected to be the horse most able to play spoiler at Belmont.
If we’re lucky, tomorrow will leave us with a feeling horseracing fans haven’t had since Affirmed outdueled Alydar to win the 1978 Belmont Stakes. Hopefully, we’ll be reminded that horseracing’s greatest feat is still a possibility.
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