Our biggest heartbreaks in the Belmont Stakes
This week, we're strolling down memory lane to revisit several Belmont Stakes that hold special personal meaning for us. Our second "team blog" looks back at our most disappointing Belmont renewals.
Vance Hanson: If I were absolutely true to myself, this choice would be a no-brainer. Real Quiet's heartbreaking, photo-finish loss to Victory Gallop in 1998 has virtually no equal for obvious reasons. However, Victory Gallop was a future champion, and as the years pass I don't mind when Triple Crown bids are foiled by deserving adversaries. Sticking more in my craw are Triple Crown bids snuffed out by lesser talents, such as Touch Gold and Birdstone. Then there's the other type of Belmont winner, the type we've seen too much of in recent decades. The ones that make you ask: "Why/How is this horse a classic winner?" The first one I remember feeling this way about was 1990 Belmont winner Go and Go. Relatively young and uninformed about the training brilliance of Dermot Weld, who would make it a habit of winning all around the world, I found Go and Go's eight-length blowout preposterous at the time. I still kind of do. The colt had won the off-the-turf Laurel Futurity on a muddy track the previous fall, but was duly exposed on a fast track in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and then was unconventionally prepped for the Belmont on the turf in Ireland. In retrospect, he was only 7-1 in the Belmont for a reason -- the field aside from Unbridled was modest. When your first experiences of Triple Crown action are seeing horses like Alysheba, Bet Twice, Winning Colors, Risen Star, Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Unbridled, and Summer Squall win, it's horses like Go and Go that cause that initial crack in your rose-colored glasses.
Kellie Reilly: My most excruciating Belmont loss came in 1997: Silver Charm was mugged in the final strides by Touch Gold, who ripped the Triple Crown from his seeming grasp. Although the margin was more decisive than the infinitesimal near-miss suffered by Real Quiet the following year, this one hit me much harder. Unlike Real Quiet -- and the other recent Triple Crown seekers who came up short -- Silver Charm was a horse I'd been rooting for throughout the spring. When gearing up for the Derby trail over the winter, I noticed that Silver Charm was bred on a Buckpasser/*Princequillo cross similar to Spend a Buck. And he was trained by that amusing fellow Bob Baffert, who came so close in the 1996 Derby with Cavonnier. Here was a serious contender to follow. Silver Charm only confirmed that opinion in his preps at Santa Anita, where even his losses were full of merit. And after the battle-loving gray came out on top in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, surely the 1 1/2-mile Belmont would only play to his strengths. I had a lot of respect for Touch Gold as a potential spoiler, but when he apparently retreated on the far turn, I thought that Silver Charm had it. No way Free House was going to gain revenge at this distance. Silver Charm just had to keep grinding it out, and the Triple Crown was his. I could hardly believe my eyes when a resurgent Touch Gold swooped fast, late, and most importantly wide, so that Silver Charm couldn't see him and try to fight back. Rarely have I felt as sick after a race -- and hearing all of the bad puns about gold being better than silver only made it worse.
Ed DeRosa: I don't bet with my heart very often. Sure, every race is another chance to break your heart either because of a bad beat or because misfortune befalls a horse and/or rider, but I had fallen in love with Real Quiet in 1998 and was fully on board his Triple Crown train. It's one thing to want something to happen and it doesn't work out, but it's another to fully expect it to happen and watch the dream disintegrate in seconds. In yesterday's "favorite Belmont" blog I called Smarty Jones's 2004 loss racing's "Casey at the Bat moment." The 1998 Belmont was racing's Bartman or Buckner. I think those are apt comparisons because they still don't guarantee victory. It's not like Victory Gallop got lucky. He ran a fantastic race and still would have even if Real Quiet had gotten a perfect ride, but it still stings.
Jennifer Caldwell: Smarty Jones' near-miss in the 2004 Belmont Stakes is not only my biggest heartbreak in the third jewel of the Triple Crown, but one of the hardest races to watch period. After cheering him on in the early season, then seeing him easily win the Kentucky Derby and romp in the Preakness, I truly believed the Triple Crown drought was about to end. The chestnut colt seemed to be gliding along easily under his own power with jockey Stewart Elliot sitting chilly the entire backstretch. Entering the lane, with just longshot Birdstone putting in a rally behind him, it seemed Smarty Jones' date with destiny was seconds away. Unfortunately, the talented Pennsylvania-bred colt just couldn't hold on in the final jumps. It was painful to watch how hard he struggled to stay in front as Birdstone passed him just yards before the wire, bringing an end to that year's Triple Crown dream.
James Scully: I've been disappointed to see a number of Triple Crown bids fall short in the Belmont Stakes but will highlight a recent edition where the stakes weren't so high. In 2012, the best three-year-olds were based in California in my estimation. And I didn't think it was close. By the time the Belmont Stakes rolled around, the cream of the crop from out west -- I'll Have Another, Bodemeister and Creative Cause -- were all missing, but another up-and-coming colt from the Golden State, Paynter, was on the scene and I loved his chances on the front end. He was the controlling speed entering the Belmont Stakes and as it turned out, the race had so little pace that Optimizer was second entering the backstretch. Paynter was just cruising along on slow fractions, hugging the rail throughout, and spurted clear entering the stretch drive. The colt could've easily held his position down along the inside, but jockey Mike Smith was hitting his mount left-handed and allowed Paynter to drift off the rail, eventually costing his mount the race. Union Rags grinded his way up the rail into contention by midstretch but with horses to his immediate outside, there was nowhere to go if Paynter doesn't drift out slightly. And I'll always believe that Smith was completely unaware of his presence or he would've never come off the rail -- the jockey wasn't worried about an inside challenge until it was too late. Paynter tried to dig in late, but wound up a neck short in second.