The Belmont Stakes, Jewel of the Triple Crown

Longer than the Derby and Preakness, this race shows which horse is truly best


Mike Segar/Reuters

The Kentucky Derby gets the glory. The Preakness gets a pass. For my money, it is the Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of racing's Triple Crown, which almost always sifts out the very good horses from the truly great horses.

And it will be no different this Saturday afternoon, when New York's Belmont Park hosts the 143rd running of the race. The very good Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom will be there (the 2-1 morning line favorite from the 9-hole). And the very good Preakness winner Shackleford will be, too (at 9-2 from the 12-hole). A victory in the Belmont for either of these colts won't just earn his respective connections some serious lettuce, it will also likely guarantee horse-of-the-year honors. Then again, the Eclipse Award could go to the horse which wins Saturday if it isn't either of those two.

For those colts and geldings who race in all three races especially, the Belmont is the most difficult of the three to win. The race is longer than either of the other two-- five-sixteenths of a mile longer than the Preakness. The Belmont is raced five weeks after the Derby and three after the Preakness; a crowded schedule for any horse, much less a 3-year-old who hasn't raced much in his pampered life. And the Belmont field always contains fresh horses who haven't gone to Baltimore and/or Louisville but who have instead trained for Belmont's great distance.

These reasons and more help explain why horse racing fans around the world hold Triple Crown champions in such reverence. And why many of those same fans couldn't list off the top of their heads most of the rest of the horses who have won both the Derby and the Preakness before losing the Belmont. In all, 45 horses have won two of the three Triple Crown races. Twenty one of those horses won the first two races before losing in New York-- including four in the past decade. You'll recognize them immediately when you see their names. But they are no Citation.

This year, it will indeed take a victory by one of these horses to convince me (at least) that we are all witnessing a form of greatness. If Animal Kingdom were a great horse so far he would have tracked down Shackleford in the Preakness. And if Shakleford were a great horse so far he never would have let those other horses, including Animal Kingdom, catch up during the stretch run in the Derby. If every race tells a story, the Belmont at least will tell us what we really ought to think about this pair. And that's a good thing.

The Belmont re-match between the two prior Triple Crown winners has made for great copy in the larger world beyond racing. The Associated Press (which, for the unitiated among you, is Journalism's Daily Racing Form) posted a wire story with a headline: "Derby, Preakness Winners Make Belmont Compelling" and that has driven much of the coverage. In the world of horse racing, there are great debates emerging and evolving over how this crop of 3-year-olds ought to be measured in contrast to prior years. For the sake of racing, I am glad that more people will watch (and bet, and have fun) than otherwise would.

Allow me to invoke the "for the sake of racing" motif one more time. For some, for many I bet, there is only one Belmont that comes to mind when word of the race is uttered. It was exactly 38 years ago, June 9, 1973. It was Secretariat. So now please do yourself a favor and spend five minutes watching the greatest horse ever run his greatest race ever. And listen to Chick Anderson's fabled call as well.

It was the Belmont that delivered to us this Secretariat. It was the challenge of the long race, at the end of a frentic five-week period, that allowed the horse's brilliance to fully manifest itself. That's why so many of us follow and will watch Saturday even though there is no Triple Crown on the line again this year. Yup, I'm a big fan of the Belmont. And, by the way, it wouldn't surprise me if a very good horse named Nehro wins the whole damn thing Saturday after beloved bugler Sam Grossman plays "Sidewalks of New York."