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.

In 1948, New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley had bemoaned the lack of pageantry and glamor at the Belmont  ("no blare of trumpets, no rendition of some nostalgic tune") although it was "the oldest and best of the hoss races which combine to form turfdom's famed Triple Crown." Unlike the Derby and the Preakness, Daley complained that "the austere and unbending folk who conduct the Belmont have no theme song."  He suggested that they "could use 'The Sidewalks of New York.'”

It was a suggestion—and perhaps Daley was not the first to offer it—that did not take immediate root. Three years later, according to the Times, on Belmont day "a startling report was received in the press box early in the afternoon. It was to the effect that the band was going to come out in front of the stands before the running the Belmont Stakes and play 'The Sidewalks of New York.' The report was untrue. The band stayed in the paddock. Let Churchill Downs and Pimlico have their infield bands. Not Belmont."

It was not until 1956 that "Belmont used some showmanship in presenting its great race for 3 year-olds," the Times reported. The announcer introduced the horses and riders during the post parade and Major Francis W. Sutherland's band played  “The Sidewalks of New York,” apparently for the first time. Which means, of course, that Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), and Citation (1948) had somehow managed to win the Triple Crown without it.  Perhaps the 1956 decision was an effort to provide a novel bit of spectacle for the television audience—the fans at the track were likely more concerned with getting to the betting windows in time.

But that was then. Myth or not, "Belmont officials, bereft of a Triple Crown winner since 1978, are taking no chances and are resurrecting Mamie" Sam Roberts wrote in the New York Times last week. But it's actually more of a grudging hedge than a resurrection. "Sidewalks" is not being reinstated as the post parade accompaniment. Instead, the track bugler will play the pre-1979 standby before the race. Once again, "New York, New York," to be sung this year by Frank Sinatra, Jr., will be heard when the horses parade to the post.

If Chrome follows in the hoof prints of the 12 Derby and Preakness winners since 1979 whose Triple Crown dreams failed at the last hurdle, the time for such half measures will be past. Next year, officials should go all the way and return "The Sidewalks of New York" to the post parade. And even if Chrome does beat the "curse," would it do any harm to summon up the music of a "misty time"—a happier time for the currently beleaguered sport of racing?