Belmont Stakes

belmont park

It’s the oldest race and the longest race in America’s Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing – and the most difficult to win.

The first Belmont Stakes were run not at Belmont Park, but at Jerome Park Racetrack in 1867. Jerome Park was built in 1866 and financed by August Belmont, a wealthy businessman and politician who was also a noted horse lover.

The first Belmont Stakes were won by a filly named Ruthless, who beat De Courcey by a head to claim a purse of $1,850, or about $31,000 in today’s terms. Only two other fillies have won the Belmont: Tanya in 1905 and Rags to Riches in 2007.

The Belmont Stakes continued to be held at Jerome Park until 1890, when they moved to the new Morris Park Racecourse (which also held the Preakness that year) as the old facility was closed to allow construction of the Jerome Park Reservoir. Morris Park was a gem when it first opened, but after founder John Morris died in 1895, the resulting lack of attendance by New York high society led to its demise.

Cue the hero music. Belmont’s son, August Belmont Jr, arranged for the construction of Belmont Park in 1905 in part to reclaim his father’s legacy. Time magazine lauded the younger Belmont in his obituary as the man who “saved thoroughbred racing” on the East Coast. Belmont was also a noted horse owner and breeder – three of his own horses won the Belmont Stakes: Masterman (1902), Friar Rock (1916) and Hourless (1917).

Belmont was also the breeder behind the greatest thoroughbred that ever lived. His top horse was Man o’ War, named by Belmont’s wife Eleanor in tribute to her husband, who was serving overseas in World War I at the time. Facing uncertain times upon his return, the Belmonts sold their stables; Man o’ War would go on to win the 1920 Belmont for Glen Riddle Farm. That was also the last Belmont Stakes to be run clockwise in the English tradition.

Unfortunately for Belmont, his new racetrack was closed down by a wave of anti-gambling legislation that saw horse racing shuttered across the United States – except in Maryland and Kentucky, where pari-mutuel betting was allowed to proceed. The Belmont Stakes were not run in 1911 or 1912 as the Progressive Era was in full swing, but by 1913, the moral compass toward horse racing had shifted enough to allow Belmont Park to reopen.

Back in those early days, the Belmont wasn’t necessarily the longest of the three Triple Crown races – which weren’t even considered Triple Crown races at the time, as the concept didn’t gain a foothold until the 1930s. The Belmont was run at various distances up to its arrival at Belmont Park, where it was run at a mile and three furlongs until 1925. The move to 1.5 miles was made the following year, which was also the first year the August Belmont Trophy was awarded to the winning horse.

The Golden Era of horse racing in the 1930s and the establishment of the Triple Crown elevated the Belmont Stakes to the special status it maintains to this day. The 1937 Belmont victory by War Admiral (the son of Man o’ War) was the coming of age for the Triple Crown concept; by this time, every horse lover in America was fixated on the Belmont and whether War Admiral could finish the job.

The 1940s produced four Triple Crown winners, including two of the top five horses on The Blood-Horse magazine’s list of the Top 100 US Racehorses of the 20th Century: No. 3 Citation (1948) and No. 5 Count Fleet (1943). It would take another 25 years for a horse to win the Triple Crown, and it was none other than Secretariat, the No. 2 horse on the Top 100 behind Man o’ War. Secretariat took the 1973 Belmont Stakes by an incredible 31 lengths over Twice a Prince, setting the race record for 1.5 miles of 2:24, which still stands today.

Horse racing was firmly in the national spotlight in 1977 and 1978 when Seattle Slew and Affirmed won the Belmont to complete the first back-to-back Triple Crowns in the sport’s history. However nobody has managed to do it since. Here’s the list of horses since 1978 who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before failing to win the Belmont.

1979: Spectacular Bid (show)
1981: Pleasant Colony (show)
1987: Alysheba (fourth)
1989: Sunday Silence (place)
1997: Silver Charm (place)
1998: Real Quiet (place, by photo finish behind Victory Gallop)
1999: Charismatic (show)
2002: War Emblem (eighth)
2003: Funny Cide (show)
2004: Smarty Jones (place)
2008: Big Brown (DNF, cracked hoof)
2012: I’ll Have Another (scratched, tendinitis)
2014: California Chrome (fourth)