By TERRY LYONS, The Daily Payoff Contributing Columnist
NEW YORK – In this instant gratification and “everything is the best” sports world we currently live in, courtesy of the never-ending, 24/7 cable news and sports-talk radio, how often can we truly say we have a chance to see a true champion accomplish one of the greatest feats in sports?
That chance will come on Saturday, June 6, when the gates open at beautiful Belmont Park and, on an spring evening in New York, trainer Bob Baffert saddles up thoroughbred great American Pharoah for the 147th running of The Belmont Stakes. It will mark the 34th time a racehorse is shipped to the famed track, located halfway between LaGaurdia and JFK Airports, with a chance to win the most coveted title in the sport of kings, that being “The Triple Crown,” or victories in the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness and The Belmont Stakes.
As most sports fans and all horse racing aficionados know, the Belmont is the toughest horse race of them all. While the Derby (1 mile and a quarter) and Preakness (1 mile and three-sixteenths) each measure slightly more than a country mile, the track at the Belmont is mapped at a grueling mile and a half, a distance which tests the stamina and heart of a horse, the way The Iditarod tests the endurance and will of a sled dog and his musher.
History tells us, the last Triple Crown winner was the great Affirmed, in 1978 – a horse pushed by his chief rival, Alydar, in the same manner in which Magic pushed Bird or Frazier pushed Ali. Between the time when Affirmed took The Belmont and today, there have been 23 champion thoroughbreds who came to this city of dreams with victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, winning in Kentucky and Maryland, only to have their legacies dashed with losses at The Belmont. The list is lofty, and includes:
• Most recently, in 2014, California Chrome who finished fourth in The Belmont.
• Ten years before that, in 2004, the popular Smarty Jones, finished second.
• An interesting string of close calls from 1997-99 when Silver Charm (2nd), Real Quiet (2nd) and Charistmatic (3rd) all fell short at The Belmont.
Before Affirmed in 1978, there was, arguably, the greatest stretch-run, the greatest ass-kicking, the greatest victory margin in a clutch situation in sports history – the 1973 Belmont Stakes victory for the best and most powerful horse I’ve ever set eyes on – Secretariat.
Secretariat’s win in the final leg of the Triple Crown was perfect, just perfect. How often can you say an athletic feat in the most important of sports events was perfect?
The only other performance that can be compared to Secretariat’s great run is New York Yankees legend Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. While there have been other great performances in all major sports, there are no other rightful comparisons to Secretariat’s run.
Can American Pharoah become a Triple Crown champion?
But jockey Victor Espinoza will need to guide his Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion on a near-perfect trip and avoid the slew Belmont-busters entered as spoilers in the lengthy endurance test of a mile and a half around the dirt track.
Why is it so difficult for a horse to win the Triple Crown?
“It’s supposed to be hard,” said John Cirillo, the president of his Cirillo World communications firm and a noted racing and handicapping guru who started his career as the PR guy at Yonkers Raceway.
“Three races in five weeks is grueling on a three-year old colt, many are still developing and their races usually spaced a month to six weeks apart.
“Secondly, Belmont is a tricky track and surface, known as ‘Big Sandy’ as a deep and tiring track surface. Then, you have the ‘Racing Gods’ and that means, like in all sports, you need to have some luck.
“War Emblem, another who won the first two legs for the Baffert-Espinoza combo, stumbled at the start in the Belmont in 2002 and lost all chance while I’ll Have Another was injured in 2012 and never even got the chance to race for history. Real Quiet missed by a nostril in ’98.”
Come June 6th, we very well could see American Pharoah become a Triple Crown winner to break the 36-year drought and become only the fourth horse to take the three races in the 67 years since the great Citation won in 1948.