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.
Few among us can say that a jewel of the Triple Crown takes place practically in our backyard, and I never cease to be awed that the Belmont, that one of the most historic and important races in the United States, occurs at one of my home tracks. I feel incredibly fortunate that this place that is so familiar, that is often, despite its magnitude, homey, is, for one day a year, transformed into something that is shared with racing fans across the country, and I get to watch it happen.
And this year’s Belmont—much of the Triple Crown, in fact--felt, perhaps more than most years, like a tribute to New York.
Last Wednesday, the day of the Belmont draw, quintessential New York jockey Richard Migliore bid us farewell, not of his own volition, but because his body had finally turned traitor and said, “Enough.” Richie left us for a while to head west, but he came home, and we welcomed him warmly. We look forward to seeing where he’ll next land in our racing lives.
Five and a half weeks ago, New York-based Todd Pletcher finally, finally won his first Kentucky Derby. And crossing the wire behind his Super Saver was Nick Zito’s Ice Box. If Migliore is the quintessential New York jock, Zito’s the classic New York trainer (even down to his comments about pizza).
Two weeks after the Derby, his Jackson Bend finished third by less than a length in the Preakness, and last Saturday, yet another Zito trainee, Fly Down, finished second in the Belmont. Zito says that he’s the first trainer to hit the board in all three Triple Crown races with three different horses.
And winning the 142nd Belmont Stakes, winning, incredibly, his first Triple Crown race, was New York’s Bill Mott, with New York defector Mike Smith in the saddle. He won his first Belmont, too, back here where he rode for a decade.
New Yorkers are said to be among the most provincial folks in the country: we’re in love with our city and wouldn’t live anywhere else; we’re boastful and parochial and, oh, maybe a little arrogant. We are proud.
And once in a while, we have every right to be, thanks to the good people who sometimes get to take center stage in the place that they—and we—call home.
See you next year….
Louisville native and Brooklyn dweller Bud Perrone will attend the Belmont Stakes for the first time this Saturday. Growing up in Kentucky, he went to Churchill Downs regularly as a kid, and he’s been to Belmont before, most recently for the 2005 Breeders’ Cup. “It was cold that day,” he remembered. “And we didn’t make any money.” But he’s never made it out here for the Stakes.
Perrone grew up in Louisville, one of 10 children, five of them boys, and in high school, he and his friends were infield regulars on Derby Day. His brother Tom still goes to the Derby every year.
One of the Perrone boys, Victor, was best friends with Jack Conway, currently a candidate for attorney general of Kentucky. Younger than Bud, Victor was killed in a car crash in Louisville in 1992. The Conway family has long owned racehorses, and Jack and his father Tom have, according to Bud, always wanted to name a horse after Victor, but they wanted to wait until they found the right one.
The Conways bought a Ghostzapper colt last year for $250,000, and finally, they had found the one. They named him Stately Victor, and he made his first start at Saratoga last summer, finishing second to Winslow Homer in an off-the-turf race. On closing weekend at the Spa, Stately Victor won a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf race by four and a half lengths.
At that point, Bud had no idea that the horse existed. “I heard about him right before the Breeder’s Futurity,” he recalled. Stately Victor finished seventh over Keeneland’s Polytrack. Bud admitted that he then sort of lost track of the horse. Stately Victor lost five races in a row, and life in Brooklyn with children interfered with following the colt’s career.
“I didn’t even know that he was running in the Blue Grass,” Bud said shortly before the Kentucky Derby. “My mother called me that night after he won.” So Bud did not cash an $82.20 winning ticket when Stately Victor crossed the wire first.
He watched the race on YouTube, and while moved by the victory of his brother’s equine namesake, it took a while to sink in. “You get so distracted by everyday life—it was great when my mother told me, but now it brings up all these reminders of when we were little kids, little moments. They’re never too far away, but they can get lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life.”
Though naturally Bud wanted Stately Victor to win the Derby - “It would be great for the Conways,” he said. “This is Tom Conway’s first Derby starter” - he was also philosophical: “If he finishes 19th, it’ll be OK.”
Stately Victor didn’t finish 19th; he finished eighth after getting slammed coming out of the starting gate. Shortly after that race, trainer Michael Maker targeted the Belmont as the colt’s next start.
Before the Derby, Perrone said, emotions had run so high that by the time of the race, the emotion had been “wrung out.” He threw his first Derby party at his Brooklyn home, and he says, “We were just able to enjoy the day and the race itself. We’re still in that sort of pattern, which is actually good. It’s just about having fun and enjoying the moment.”
Stately Victor arrived at Belmont a week ago, settling into historic Barn 1. He lives a few doors down from Dale Romans’s First Dude, and he’s been one of the first horses out each morning, generally hitting the track between 5:30 and 6:00 am. Last weekend, Maker declared himself “very happy” with how the horse had been training. Bud’s brothers are coming in from Louisville, as are the Conways; the Perrone family will be well represented at Belmont on Saturday. Stately Victor’s morning line odds are 15-1. Word from the Louisville camp is that the colt’s connections are positive about the colt’s workouts, and thinking that he’s got a shot. “We’re not going past that,” said Perrone.
The weeks since the Blue Grass have offered Perrone a chance to remember and celebrate his younger brother’s life, and to share memories with new friends that didn’t know Victor. On Saturday, he’ll see Stately Victor in person for the first time, sharing that experience with his wife, two of his brothers, and his brother-in-law. Unlike his last trip out to Belmont, it won’t be cold on Saturday, and maybe this time, Perrone will go home a winner.
On the first Saturday in June, three-year-old colts take center stage at Belmont Park. When we’re lucky, and when the horses are great, we await the Belmont Stakes to see whether, finally, we’ll get to see a 12th horse make history at the end of the road to the Triple Crown.
But earlier in the card, the fillies get their chance to shine, and for them, the road - an albeit less exalted road than the one taken by their male peers - is just beginning.
The Grade I Acorn was first run in 1931 and is the first leg of the Filly Triple Crown, sometimes called the Triple Tiara. Its traditional configuration is the Acorn, the Mother Goose, and the Coaching Club American Oaks; briefly earlier this decade, the Alabama replaced the Acorn, but in 2006 the original series was restored.
Some mighty impressive fillies have emerged victorious from the 1-mile Acorn: Top Flight, Twilight Tear (who as a 3-year-old beat older males en route to being named Horse of the Year), Gallorette, Shuvee, Davona Dale, Ruffian, Sky Beauty, among so many other notable fillies.
One of those notable female runners is Cicada, who won the 1962 edition of the race. A champion at two, three, and four, Cicada won the first time she entered the starting gate, and she must have decided that she liked the feeling: making sixteen starts as a 2-year-old, she hit the board in every race, ending her first season on the track with a record of 11-2-3.
She came back as a 3-year-old and resumed her winning ways; she was so good that her owners, Meadow Stable, considered running her in the Kentucky Derby after her impressive showing in the Florida Derby at Hialeah: she was beaten a nose by Ridan, who later that year would lose the Travers by the same margin to Jaipur. Cicada was in that race, too, finishing a distant seventh.
In between the Florida Derby and the Travers, Cicada took the Acorn on May 19th, 1962. She survived an inquiry, and while her trainer, J.H Hayes, was said by Edward L. Bowen to like “tough horses,” Cicada’s toughness was not what the Times chose to highlight in its Acorn recap:
"Cicada, the glamour girl of the 3-year-olds, who had her picture taken in the winner’s circle recently after two victories in Kentucky, was playing the same role at Aqueduct yesterday…
Cicada, wearing a blue-and-white brow band, her stable’s colors, was in front of the photographers again after having captured the one-mile contest for 3-year-old fillies."
Once Michael Strauss finished depicting Cicada as a starlet on the red carpet, he got around to mentioning that her final time of 1:35 3/5, oh, just happened to be a stakes record.
Cicada won on turf and dirt; she beat boys and girls. She won over fast tracks, she won in the slop; she won short (three, six, and seven furlongs) and she won long (a mile, 1 1/8 miles). William H.P. Robertson lamented that she never won beyond 9 furlongs.
She won the Schuylerville, the Spinaway, the Matron, the Frizette, the Kentucky Oaks, the Acorn, the Mother Goose, the Beldame, the Distaff, the Vagrancy, and the Sheepshead Bay.
She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967, and Bowen said that she “had been tested as thoroughly as virtually any modern filly or mare and had stood up to every challenge with speed, grit, and unwavering fortitude.” The Blood-Horse ranked her #62 in its top 100 racehorses of the 20th century.
Cicada didn’t win the Filly Triple Crown; after winning the Mother Goose, she lost the Coaching Club American Oaks by a half-length to Bramalea. The last winner of the series for 3-year-old fillies was Sky Beauty, in 1994, but no shortage of imagination-capturing females has given us hope in the Acorn: You, Round Pond, Bird Town, among them.
On June 5th, the featured race is the 135th running of the Belmont. But a bit earlier, watch the 83rd running of the Acorn. It could be the start of something special.
Update: Shortly after this post went up, the New York Racing Association announced that Betfair TVF will sponsor a new configuration of the Triple Tiara series. Should a filly win the three Grade I races of the series - the Acorn, the Coaching Club American Oaks, and the Alabama - Betfair TVG will present her owners with a $50,000 bonus to go the charity of their choice.
Further reading at Brooklyn Backstretch:
Cicada past performance information from Champions, published in 2000 by the DRF press
“Cicada,” by Edward L. Bowen in Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century. Published in 2003 by Blood-Horse Publications.
Robertson, William H.P. The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America. Bonanza Books, 1964.
Oh, the gloom and doom! The long faces, the despair...because Super Saver lost, and we won’t be rooting for a Triple Crown this year.
OK, so maybe there are reasons to be downcast, and people are writing about them all over the place: New York racing could really use the boost that a Triple Crown bid would provide; with no Kentucky Derby or Preakness winner, the race could feel a little lackluster; no one outside of die-hard racing will recognize any of the horses that are running.
But come on, people! It’s not as if we haven’t been here before. Only 32 horses have come to Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. 32. That leaves over a hundred runnings of the Belmont without a Triple Crown on the line (and yes, that includes the races when the concept of the Triple Crown wasn’t even a glimmer in the eye of race fans).
I’ve been going to the Belmont only since 2004: I’ve seen two Triple Crown bids denied—Smarty Jones and Big Brown--and one race with neither the Kentucky Derby nor Preakness winner present (2006, when Jazil won).
And you know what? They were all fun. Really, really fun.
Afleet Alex came to the Belmont after that literally death-defying recovery in the Preakness to kick in around the turn and win the Belmont going away.
2006 was a “Wonder what might have been” year, with Barbaro injured and Bernardini taking a rest; still, Jazil was a pretty fun horse to watch, making a run from 12th of 12; it was a gorgeous day, and I cashed both a win and an exacta ticket on him. No wistfulness as I made my way home that year.
2007: Rags to Riches. Most exciting sports moment I’ve ever seen live. Check out last year’s post for more details.
2009: Borel guaranteed victory, but the Other Bird won it on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon.
So what are the ingredients for a memorable Belmont Stakes? OK, yeah, first and foremost, a Triple Crown on the line. No argument. But that’s not an option.
We want good weather, so that we can enjoy the lush expanse of beautiful Belmont Park.
We want good friends, to hang with and handicap with and eat with and drink with.
We want good betting, and the chance to pick up some juicy prices.
We want good stories: Kent Desormeaux’s redemption on Summer Bird after the Big Brown disaster. A filly in the Belmont. A fan favorite.
And what stories might we get this year? We’ve got Zito and Romans; one of them is enough to entertain us for three weeks; three is an embarrassment of riches.
We’ve got a horse named Dude. And we might have two, if Bob Baffert brings Game On Dude. You could bet the Dude-zacta.
We might have Stately Victor, upset winner of the Blue Grass who’s named for the deceased boyhood friend of his owner.
We’re anticipating the entry of Uptowncharlybrown, who vies with Victor for sentimental favorite following the recent death of his trainer, Alan Seewald.
If that’s not enough, how about five other graded stakes races on the card, for a grand total of four Grade I’s and two Grade II’s?
And Belmont Day is still nearly three weeks away! Plenty of time for stories to be generated, friends to be gathered, plans to be made.
So come on, people. If you think that we’ve got the makings of a moribund Belmont, you’re just not using your imagination. Buy your tickets, make your plans, and get your butts to Belmont. Not much chance these days to see horses run for a mile and a half on dirt, and you get to see them at one of the most beautiful racetracks in the country.
See you there.