On Sunday afternoon, a bouquet of roses lay outside barn 20 on the Belmont backstretch, their colors nearly matching the red paint on the sign identifying the barn as the home of the Phipps Stable. The bouquet wasn’t quite as imposing as the blanket of roses that had been presented the day before, its meaning less grandiose. It was not a celebration of victory; it was, rather, a welcome home.
Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
A handful of people waited for news of the van en route from Long Island MacArthur Airport, the van carrying half a dozen horses that had flown from Louisville that morning. The names of the horses were not unfamiliar: Hungry Island, the graded stakes winner second by a neck in this year’s Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, and Point of Entry, the multiple Grade I winner, scratched, disappointingly, from the Wood Reserve Turf Classic were among those heading home.
But they and their stablemates had to wait their turn to get off the van…pride of place was given to the winner of Kentucky Derby 139, who walked down the chute and into his shedrow attended by a small shadow of paparazzi and fans, eager to welcome Orb home.
It had been months since he’d been at Belmont: after breaking his maiden at Aqueduct last November, he’d headed south, spending the winter at Payson Park before traveling to Churchill Downs to contest the Kentucky Derby. He might have headed straight to Baltimore from Louisville, but instead, his trainer Shug McGaughey opted to come back to Belmont for a week or so.
McGaughey’s week has been tougher than Orb’s: the trainer has made multiple media appearances, done countless interviews. Orb stayed close to barn 20 until Wednesday morning, when he headed to the track in the rain for a jog, then went back on Thursday to gallop. He’s expected to breeze on Monday before leaving for Pimlico on Tuesday.
For the fourth time since 2003, New Yorkers will have the chance to root home one of their own in the Preakness, in the hope that he’ll come back to Belmont in June with a chance to win the Triple Crown. The roots of Team Orb run deep in the Empire State: McGaughey has trained here for decades, and Orb’s owners, Stuart S. Janney III and Phipps Stable, have been pillars of racing in this state, as owners, breeders, and members of NYRA’s board.
So we kick off this year’s Belmont Stakes blog by welcoming Orb back to Belmont. Over the next month we’ll follow him to Pimlico, and we hope back home for a run at the first Triple Crown in 35 years.
We’ll also, as usual, dig into the history of the Belmont Stakes; we’ll look at some of the other horses that will be running on Belmont day; we’ll check out the latest addition to NYRA’s stakes calendar, a spring version of the popular New York Showcase Day on June 1.
So…welcome back. Welcome back to Belmont. Welcome back to the blog. And welcome back to Shug and Orb, winners of Kentucky Derby 139.
I’m not one of those New Yorkers who thinks that our city is the center of universe and that there’s nowhere better than here. There’s a lot to love about New York; there’s also a lot that’s maddening, if not exasperating, if not infuriating.
There are certain New York things that I love with an almost unreasoning affection. I love coffee from the carts on the street. I love the Empire State Building when it’s red and green at Christmas time. I love walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. I love the subway.
And I love the Belmont. I know that its success and its relevance often depend on the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and lacking a potential Triple Crown winner, it can be something of an afterthought in a Triple Crown season, its winners dismissed as the best of what’s left of the 3-year-olds after a rigorous six months of racing.
So when I’ll Have Another was scratched on Friday morning, after we had been assured that the horse would be OK, I thought...It’s OK. It’s still Belmont day. It’s still going to be great.
But what if it weren’t? What if nobody came? What if everyone were too disappointed to enjoy themselves? What if, as the forecasters suddenly started saying, it rained all day?
But they did come, and they did enjoy themselves. All of those people who scrambled to buy tickets to try to see a Triple Crown winner decided to come anyway (or gave or sold their tickets to people who wanted to be there), and they cheered and bet and ate and drank their way through 13 races, through clouds and sunshine and only a few, a very few drops of rain.
By the time the Belmont rolled around, while it might not have been exactly OK that they weren’t going to see a horse try to win the Triple Crown, they seemed to have made peace with that reality and given themselves over to the thrill of the race itself.
I sat with my brother and our friends for the race, and in front of me, middle-aged men and women formed a kick line during “New York, New York,” moving to the sound of the thousands around us singing as the horses came on to the track. And yeah, I got goose bumps, because it was one of those perfect New York moments, and one that we get only once a year.
And when it was over, it was Union Rags, who romped over this track last fall in the Champagne. We learned his story – that his owner sold him, then dreamt about him, then bought him back, for a lot more money. We watched him flounder this spring…and on Saturday, we watched him squeeze through an impossibly small hole, guided by John Velazquez, one of New York’s own, who will go into the Hall of Fame this year.
This year’s Belmont Stakes wasn’t we thought, or hoped, it would be. But by Saturday night, by the time Phyllis Wyeth had sped down the ramp to the winner’s circle in her wheelchair, by the time she clutched the Belmont Stakes trophy with Michael Matz, by the time Velazquez had explained one more time how he and Union Rags made it through that little space on the rail…we had another day of Belmont Stakes memories, a day of speed and class and redemption and a dream come true, a day when it was maybe OK to think that at least for a little while, New York was the center of the (racing) universe.
Though the first Belmont Stakes was run in 1867, it wasn’t run at Belmont Park until 1905.
The race was inaugurated at Jerome Park in what is now the Bronx, where it stayed until 1889, when it moved to Morris Park, also in the Bronx. Run there until Morris Park closed in 1904, the Belmont Stakes made its debut at its eponymous track on May 24, 1905.
Belmont Park had opened earlier that month with much fanfare; days of coverage were devoted to the opening of what one headline called, “The World’s Finest Race Course.” One preview proclaimed, “The biggest thing in the shape of a race course that ever has been conceived and achieved, will be opened for racing on Thursday of this week.”
Among the splashy track’s new features was the mile and a half oval with which we are all familiar, but this was not the “Belmont course,” according to an early map of the new park.
The Belmont had been run at various distances in its history, from 1 1/8 miles to a mile and five furlongs; the “Belmont course,” reportedly the course over which the Belmont Stakes would be run, was a mile and three furlongs.
Another feature of the new track was the direction in which the horses would run; at the new Belmont Park, races wouldn’t be run counter-clockwise, as was the custom in the United States. At Belmont, horses would run the other way, an idea that the Times said “would appeal to many racegoers.”
In its voluminous coverage, the Times noted visitors’ first reactions to the new track, which are not so dissimilar from those who come to Belmont for the first time now. “...They realized for the first time the immensity of the new racing plant…for size and spaciousness there is nothing in racing like its great infield…Bigness is stamped all over this newest and hugest of American racing plants.”
A filly, Ruthless, had won the very first running of the Belmont, in 1867 at Jerome Park, so it was perhaps fitting that another filly, Tanya, would win the first running at the track named for the man who gave his name to the race. But as the map indicates, the race that Tanya won bears no resemblance to the race that this year’s 11 Belmont Stakes starters will run. Says the 1905 race recap, “The race was won over the Belmont course, the start being made in the middle of the back stretch of the training track, and the horses, after making one turn on that course, coming on the main track and finishing down the regular stretch.”
If we think that jockeys unfamiliar with the Belmont course now are at a disadvantage, imagine what a newcomer must have felt about negotiating a right-hand turn and two tracks just to find the finish line. Jockey Eugene Hildebrand on Tanya apparently had no trouble.
Tanya’s Belmont was run at a mile and a quarter, not tomorrow’s distance of a mile and a half, and the 11 jockeys will have to negotiate only one track, but regardless of where the race is run or how long it is, the winner of the Belmont Stakes gets to say that he--or she--conquered the Test of the Champion.
“Belmont Park Open, Metropolitan A Tie.” New York Times, May 5, 1905.
“Belmont Park, The World’s Finest Race Course.” New York Times, April 30, 1905.
“Tanya Won Belmont By A Neck from Blandy.” New York Times, May 25, 1905.
When Bodemeister finished second to I’ll Have Another in both the Derby and Preakness this year, hopes rose that we’d have a contemporary revival of the rivalries that have made so many Belmont Stakes famous. Secretariat/Sham, Affirmed/Alydar, Sunday Silence/Easy Goer, Real Quiet/Victory Gallop….I’ll Have Another/Bodemeister!
That hope died less than 24 hours after the Preakness ended. On Sunday, Bodemeister’s trainer, Bob Baffert, announced that his horse would sit out the Belmont, even though, according to him, the horse came out of the race in great shape. “He didn’t act tired. After the race, he came back to the barn and he wasn’t as tired as he was after the Derby.”
Still, quickly and decisively, Baffert opted out of a third chance to beat the horse that had beaten his. One of his predecessors made the opposite decision, just as quickly, just as decisively.
John Veitch trained Alydar for Mrs. Lucille Markey and Calumet Farm, and according to Veitch, neither of them ever considered sitting out the Belmont.
“Mrs. Markey didn’t think it would be proper for us not to continue the rivalry,” he said by phone from Kentucky. “She would never let any horse that she owned or that wore Calumet silks look like he was backing out.
“She also thought it would be a wonderful thing for racing for the rivalry to continue.”
Veitch himself was, as he put it, “all for it.” He thought that the additional distance would suit Alydar ideally, and he thought that at the Belmont’s mile-and-a-half distance, he had the stronger horse. He welcomed the chance to take another crack at Affirmed, against whom Alydar had already raced eight times with Affirmed emerging the victor six times to Alydar’s two wins.
“The Belmont was an opportunity,” said Veitch, “to seek the revenge that I desperately needed.”
Asked how he felt about potentially being the spoiler in a Triple Crown bid, Veitch didn’t hesitate.
“I’d have relished it,” he said.
He didn’t, of course, get that opportunity. Affirmed won again, by a slim neck, becoming the 11th winner of the Triple Crown. And despite the loss, Veitch never regretted running in the Belmont.
“Alydar came out the race great,” he remembered. “I hadn’t planned to run him again until we got to Saratoga; he’d had an arduous campaign.”
A campaign unheard-of now for a horse of Alydar’s caliber: Alydar had won the Florida Derby on April 1, then crushed the Blue Grass by 13 lengths on April 27. Nine days later, he was in the Kentucky Derby; two weeks after that, in the Preakness.
“He came out of the Belmont so good that he really wouldn’t relax,” said Veitch. “After two or three days being off and then going back to the track for light exercise, he showed me that I had to continue to train him or he was going to hurt himself because he felt so good.
“He came out of the Triple Crown as well as any horse ever has.”
Veitch emphasized that it was that fortitude and stamina that allowed him to put Alydar through such a rigorous series of races and to consider running the horse in the Belmont.
“I had the horse to work with,” he said. “I had spent two years with him occupying so much of my thoughts, and I knew his capability.
“If you have the horse, you should come back just for the sake for the sport. Trying to do the best for the sport, if you possibly can, is something everyone involved in racing should do.
“That’s the way Ms. Markey felt and it’s the way I felt, and we had the horse to do it with.
“Looking back, it was a wonderful thing for the sport.”
Indeed it was.
For more on the Affirmed/Alydar rivalry, check out this article I wrote on it for Hello Race Fans.