Rags to Riches and Curlin's Belmont Stakes finish is one of the most fantastic finishes of the 21st century. (Photo by NYRA)
When I was putting together a feature story last month on Afleet Alex, 10 years after his amazing Preakness victory, it got me thinking about some of the pretty remarkable performances we’ve seen in the Triple Crown since the turn of the century. I decided to put together a couple of lists of my top performances, starting with five fantastic finishes and then wrapping with powerhouse performances.
To make this list, the Triple Crown race had to come in 2001 or later and the margin of victory had to be a length or less. That eliminated Afleet Alex’s 2005 Preakness for this list, even though it was undoubtedly a fantastic finish. Of course, it would be a safe wager that Afleet Alex might make his way onto the powerhouse performances list, for which the winning margin needed to be more than one length and the race also had to come in 2001 or later.
Feel free to chime in with your own favorites in the comments section and call me names (as long as they are not profane).
5. Union Rags By a Neck in 2012 Belmont
Sure, the 2012 Belmont Stakes lost its star talent the week of the race when Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another was scratched with an injury, but Union Rags came through with a memorable finish. Paynter had a clear lead in the stretch and looked poised to give owner Zayat Stables and jockey Mike Smith, who both had finished second with Bodemeister to I’ll Have Another in the Derby and Preakness, a measure of vindication. But Union Rags slipped through a narrow opening inside of Paynter under Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez and unleashed a “final furious rally” to win the Belmont Stakes.
4. Birdstone Shatters Smarty’s 2004 Triple Crown Dreams
This one pains me to write. I was standing at the eighth pole on the racetrack apron at Belmont Park for the 2004 Belmont Stakes. The place was absolutely electric. I was wearing my Smarty Jones hat. The 120,139 fans in attendance, or at least the vast majority of them, expected the coronation of the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. When Smarty Jones streaked into the stretch with a clear lead, the crowd’s response sent shivers up and down my spine. When Smarty Jones swept past just an eighth of a mile from history, I had goose bumps but they were almost instantly replaced by panic and dread as Birdstone surged past right behind him. I remember looking at my future wife, Carrie, and just saying, “Oh, no!” This probably sounds crazy, but the sound of Birdstone’s hooves on the track felt so much more powerful than those of Smarty Jones. I wasn’t the only one who felt it as the electricity left the grandstand like the air leaving a balloon that slips out of your fingers. Just like that, seeing another Triple Crown winner seemed less likely than ever. If not Smarty Jones, then who?
3. I’ll Have Another Reels in Bodemeister in 2012 Preakness
Part of what makes this performance so memorable, for me at least, is the respect I have for runner-up Bodemeister. He was a heck of a racehorse, and he fought gallantly in the Kentucky Derby after setting a torrid pace but came up short to I’ll Have Another. The sixteenth-of-a-mile shorter Preakness seemed perfect for this burner. Ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Bodemeister led by three lengths early in Preakness stretch, but I’ll Have Another closed with ground-devouring strides to reel him a few strides from the finish line. The Preakness proved I’ll Have Another was the better racehorse and kept the Triple Crown hopes alive for a few weeks … until an injury knocked I’ll Have Another out of the Belmont Stakes.
2. Curlin Outfinishes Street Sense in 2007 Preakness
It’s safe to say that both Curlin and Street Sense rank among the best classic winners of the last decade, and eventual Horse of the Year Curlin had his coming-out party at the Preakness. Street Sense charged from off the pace to take a clear lead in the stretch, but Curlin looked him square in the eye and ground down the 2007 Kentucky Derby winner (and the 2006 champion 2-year-old male) to prevail by a head. Curlin, whose first defeat came when third to Street Sense in the Derby, was making only his fifth start in the Preakness and began his ascent in the Horse of the Year race, which was capped by back-to-back wins in the fall in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
1. Rags to Riches Makes Belmont History in 2007
For me, this race was a slam dunk for the top spot. From a filly winning the Belmont for the first time since Tanya 1905 to Tom Durkin’s race call to the battle with eventual Horse of the Year Curlin, this race has it all. I’d estimate I’ve watched this replay at least 200 times in my lifetime. The Belmont Stakes capped a five-race winning streak for Rags to Riches that also included the Kentucky Oaks and Santa Anita Oaks and the classic win also cemented her Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.