Welcome to the Belmont Stakes edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.
Each Tuesday in this space we spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing news that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week, our story centers on how the Belmont Stakes, for a second year in a row, served up a reminder of the greatness that was put on display in 2015.
Saturday’s 149th Belmont Stakes did little to settle any debates over which 3-year-old male will be crowned the division champ at year’s end. Tapwrit’s solid, two-length victory merely added another contender into the mix.
Yet when you take a step back and take a hard look at the Belmont Stakes in context with the two Triple Crown races before it, they carry more significance than their impact on the 2017 racing scene.
Add in the results of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 2016, and what you have are six straight Triple Crown races with six different winners and a cause for even more superlatives to bestow on American Pharoah’s amazing and long-awaited Triple Crown sweep in 2015.
“I remember that (trainer) Bob Baffert called me a year ago and told me that American Pharoah made it look so easy that people are telling him they expect to see another Triple Crown winner right away,” said Ahmed Zayat, the owner and breeder of American Pharoah, the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner and the first to add a Breeders’ Cup Classic win to make it a Grand Slam. “Now, after this weekend, I’m getting messages from people saying ‘only’ 35 years to go for another Triple Crown winner. It shows the magnitude of what he accomplished.”
A feat as imposing as a Triple Crown sweep can never be slighted or diminished. Yet when American Pharoah became the first horse in 37 years to capture the three classics there was some thought, or hope, that more than three and a half decades of waiting for the next horse to join Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat was just a glitch. Perhaps the 1970s, with three Triple Crown winners and two more winners of two-thirds of the series, were right around the corner.
Yet six Triple Crown races later, it seems as if we are back in 2014 when the slate stood at 0-for-36 in terms of a sweep.
Contained in those races are numbers for the Belmont that do not speak well for a Triple Crown sweep. The first four finishers in Saturday’s mile-and-a-half classic all finished out of the money in the Kentucky Derby and then took five weeks off before returning in the Belmont.
Overall, eight of the last 12 winners of the Belmont Stakes came into the race with five weeks’ rest.
Beyond that, of the last 31 horses who exited the Preakness and ran in the Belmont Stakes on three weeks’ rest, only one of them went on to win the final jewel in the Triple Crown. If you’re wondering who that resilient horse was, well, you must have been living in a cave without wireless in 2015.
Among horses who have raced in all three legs of the Triple Crown, the last 19 of them feature one winner, two seconds and three thirds in the Belmont.
Against that backdrop of horses failing to hold up under the rigors of competing in three demanding classic races in a five-week period, Robert LaPenta, a part owner of Tapwrit, told Thoroughbred Racing Commentary after the Belmont, “Horses are not built to do what horses have done over the last 100 years. They were bigger in past years. Their bones were bigger. Today’s horses are built for speed. They don’t have the stamina or the physical structure to race three times in five weeks against demanding competition. I don’t know how it changes. It’s a complicated thing.”
Naturally, with there being just one Triple Crown winner in 39 years, the talk about the Triple Crown being too difficult and in need of change seems certain to gain in chatter.
But the silencer comes from American Pharoah. Just two years ago, he showed that a horse from this era can indeed win the Triple Crown, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic against older horses in the fall, to boot.
He showed that winning the Triple Crown is exceedingly difficult but not impossible, and that’s a good thing for racing. The record crowds that keeping turning out for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness show how fans buy into the challenge inherent in the series. At Belmont Park, where attendance hinges on a Triple Crown bid, getting a sellout crowd of 90,000 to greet a Derby-Preakness winner seems academic. Before attendance was capped in 2015, the five previous Triple Crown tries attracted crowds of at least 94,000. Even in a year like this one, with a race that lacked the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, a racing festival with 18 stakes on Thursday through Saturday helped to support the bottom line at Belmont Park with a combined handle of $124.7 million for the three days.
If anything, making the Triple Crown too easy could backfire and curtail interest as seen in the 1970s.
When Seattle Slew captured the Triple Crown in 1977, there were 71,026 on hand at Belmont Park. The following year, even with Affirmed and Alydar as the stars of the show, attendance for Affirmed’s sweep dropped to 65,417. The following year, when Spectacular Bid tried – and failed – to make it a triple triple, just 58,987 showed up to watch.
And let’s not forget that back then a clubhouse reserved seat on Belmont Stakes day sold for $1.50 – yes, one dollar and 50 cents – and most grandstand seats were free.
There’s also tradition. The current five-week format was not in place when Citation became the eighth Triple Crown champion in 1948, however, it has been a staple since 1969 and over the course of nearly 50 years it has been the proving ground for the sport’s most elite champions, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and, most recently, American Pharoah.
To lengthen the time between races would surely lessen the accomplishment and it’s understandable how lowering the bar of greatness would not sit well with someone who experienced the euphoria of a historic sweep.
“I hope they do not change the time between races because of the tradition,” Zayat said. “It’s an achievement that should belong only to the special ones. There have only been 12 Triple Crown winners and as time passes we tend to appreciate more and more what horses like American Pharoah have accomplished.
“Trying to win all three races is a daunting task, yet it only makes me feel more blessed for breeding and owning (a horse) like American Pharoah.”
Perhaps everything will change next year and the sport will be graced with its 13th Triple Crown winner. Yet if it doesn’t, there shouldn’t be panic or overreaction, just an appreciation of the difference between good horses and exceptional horses and a willingness to embrace quality over quantity.
Triple Crown winners are rare indeed, but they are not dinosaurs. They still exist and with each passing year, whenever their ranks remain the same after three classic races, it’s a time for reflection. Not for what might have been after a failed bid, but to remember the brilliance that goes into winning the Triple Crown and understand that it does not – and should not - come around every year.
Only the best of the best can overcome all of the obstacles placed before them during five weeks on the Triple Crown trail. It’s what makes the series such a spectacle and horses such as American Pharoah so extraordinary and so worthy of mention after the latest chapter in the long and proud history of the Belmont Stakes.
The Also-Eligible List
Here are some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: