The Curse of the Belmont Stakes

Superstitious horse-racing fans blame the current Triple Crown drought on a break with musical tradition. The supporting history is sketchy—but why not play the old song anyway?
Jockey Steve Cauthen (3) rides Affirmed to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown ( AP )

There’s a thickening “air of inevitability” around the notion that California Chrome will soon become the first Triple Crown winner since the Carter Administration, writes Joe Drape in the New York Times. But the greatest obstacle facing the 3-5 morning-line favorite is not to be found among the 10 other horses racing at the Belmont Stakes this afternoon.

Can the colt overcome the Curse of Mamie O'Rourke? 

That's the "Mamie" who is the heroine of "The Sidewalks of New York," the sing-songy 1890s tune that begins "East Side, West Side, all around the town." "Sidewalks" was the Belmont's post parade song until it was abruptly jettisoned in 1997 for the more contemporary—if bombastic—tempo of Frank Sinatra's recording of "New York, New York." And it is "New York, New York" that has remained Belmont's answer to "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Maryland, My Maryland"—apart from a 2010 experiment with the self-absorbed dreadfulness of "Empire State of Mind" (whatever happened to the adage about doing anything as long as you don't scare the horses?).

1946 recording of "Sidewalks of New York" by Hildegarde & Guy Lumbardo (YouTube)

When Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner, took the track in 1978, it was the venerable "Sidewalks" that serenaded the field to the post.  With all subsequent Belmont bids by Derby and Preakness winners frustrated by near misses, crippling injuries, and jockey miscues, the Triple Crown dry spell now exceeds by a full decade the quarter-century gap that separated Citation's trifecta in 1948 and Secretariat's in 1973. One common explanation to this unprecedented and mystifying record of prolonged futility: Belmont's decision to drop "Sidewalks.” In the run up to this year's race, the "curse" supposedly triggered by the rejection of Mamie has figured in reports from both the Washington Post and the New York Times

Beginning in 1997, when Silver Charm came up short by three quarters of a length at the wire, six Triple Crown aspirants have paraded to the post without "Sidewalks of New York” as their musical accompaniment: Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones ( 2004), and Big Brown (2008). None prevailed in Belmont's one-and-a-half-mile "Test of the Champion."  The "curse" proved even more potent two years ago, when the 2012 Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another did not even get the chance to win (or lose) the Triple Crown on the track—he was scratched before the race. 

You could, of course, argue this is all coincidence. But it’s satisfying to think otherwise. Just after Big Brown's Triple Crown bid was derailed in the Belmont in 2008, Bennett Liebman, currently New York's Deputy Secretary for Gaming and Racing, wrote that "while my head tells me there is no curse, my heart tells me there is a curse.”

Pushing back, veteran horse racing writer John Scheinman argued that "Liebman is romantic but misguided. ... Mamie O’Rourke’s magic ran out with Affirmed. From 1979 until Sinatra showed up in the starting gate, she finished off the board in the Triple Crown."

That's true enough.  Scheinman correctly noted that between 1978 and 1997, post-parade renditions of "Sidewalks" did not secure Triple Crowns for Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), or Sunday Silence (1989). One can't help noticing, however, that the rate of failure has more than doubled "since Sinatra showed up" in 1997: The four unsuccessful Triple Crown bids in the 18 Belmonts between 1979 and 1996 escalated to the eight in the 17 run since then, culminating in the disqualifying injury of I'll Have Another two years ago.

It also has to be said that focusing on the post-1978 Triple Crown drought may not be the best way to appraise "myth" or "curse." From a long-term perspective, if the "curse" is a "myth," it is a "myth" within the "myth" that the playing of "Sidewalks of New York" dates back to, as Scheinman described, "misty times." That would be true only if the mid- 1950s counts as misty, which it does not—at least to me and perhaps some readers as well. Far from being timeless, "Sidewalks" was first played during the post parade for the Belmont Stakes in 1956.  

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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