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Belmont Stakes 2014: Triple Crown Heartbreak

The failures since 1978 are many but which Belmont Stakes loss hurt the most for racing fans?

ELMONT, NEW YORK - JUNE 5: Birdstone (4), riden by Edgar Prado, overtakes Smarty Jones (9), riden by Stewart Elliott, to win the 136th Belmont Stakes on June 5, 2004 at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
ELMONT, NEW YORK - JUNE 5: Birdstone (4), riden by Edgar Prado, overtakes Smarty Jones (9), riden by Stewart Elliott, to win the 136th Belmont Stakes on June 5, 2004 at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

We're a day away from the official start of Belmont Stakes Week 2014, and another horse with a shot to end the dreadfully long Triple Crown drought. By early evening on Saturday, June 7th, the American horse racing world will be either very happy or very depressed. As each year passes without a Triple Crown winner, the expectations grow whenever a colt comes to New York with a chance to complete the sweep. Despite his humble beginnings, California Chrome now shares a spotlight that's shined on some of the great names in racing over the last three and a half decades.

Earlier this week, Siva's #3 Rose penned a fantastic look back at the Triple Crown failures since Affirmed's triumph in 1978 along with commentary on California Chrome's chances next weekend. As he noted throughout his post, twelve times a colt has inflated our hopes of Triple Crown glory and twelve times those hopes were dashed at Big Sandy in Elmont, New York. We've watched horses lose a photo. Horses step on safety pins. Horses seemingly draw away at the top of the stretch only to see their lead disappear with each tiring stride. Horses injured during the race. Horses pulled up in the stretch and fail to finish the race. And horses scratch from the finale before even making it to the starting gate.

Reliving the failures on the last leg of the Triple Crown got me thinking of a question I find myself frequently debating: which of the failures caused the greatest amount of heartbreak? Which one was the hardest punch to the gut?

I ask that question not really thinking of which horse was clearly the best to fail in his quest. I think many of us would agree that the greatest failure in the Triple Crown based purely on the talent of the colt was Spectacular Bid's defeat in 1979 (although "Alysheba" is a completely acceptable answer). Whether due to safety pins or jockey error, The Bid's failure to complete the Triple Crown is perhaps the most unlikely given his tremendous talent and the fact that he was far and away the best three-year-old in the country (and one of the greatest horses of the 20th century).

While The Bid's failure to complete the Triple Crown was shocking from a talent standpoint, his Belmont defeat tends to not invoke the same pain as do others over the last three-and-a-half decades. After all, had he won the Triple Crown in 1979, Spectacular Bid would have completed what now qualifies as a seemingly impossible sequence of three straight Triple Crown champions. We didn't have three decades of defeat which, I think for most of us, greatly increases the disappointment.

Sunday Silence's 1989 campaign as a three-year-old colt is the seminal event that made me a fan of the sport of horse racing. Depending on what day you ask me, my response to the question of "what's your favorite horse" will be either Sunday Silence or John Henry. And while his defeat to Easy Goer in the Belmont was disappointing, I didn't find it heartbreaking or even shocking at the time. Easy Goer was a fantastic colt, a colt that had he not run up against Sunday Silence could very well of won the Triple Crown himself.

So that's two out of 12 that I wouldn't rank as the most painful Triple Crown failure. What else we got?

Pleasant Colony? Probably not in my top 5 of Triple Crown heartbreaks.

Alysheba? Perhaps the most shocking part of his Belmont defeat was how poorly he ran that day (although he certainly didn't get a clean trip). Shocking, but not kick-you-in-the-gut stuff. Again, this is 1987, less than 10 years after the last Triple Crown winner.

Silver Charm/Real Quiet/Charismatic? That was a tough trifecta of failures to deal with and, at least in my view, began the time where each loss started to create this aura of "it's never going to happen again" with the Triple Crown. Horses were taking down the Derby and the Preakness but things just started to fall apart in the Belmont.

War Emblem/Funny Cide/Smarty Jones? To be honest, the Funny Cide year I didn't find to be a heartbreaking result, perhaps given the quality of Empire Maker. I wanted Funny Cide to win but wasn't shocked or disheartened by his defeat.

War Emblem seemingly never got out of the gate so at least he couldn't break our hearts in the final quarter mile. On the other hand...

Smarty Jones. Goodness.

First, I'll get the last two out of the way: I won't even attempt to qualify any kind of pain for Big Brown and I'll Have Another's failures. I bet against Big Brown in the Belmont but sadly didn't have Da' Tara. No offense to Big Brown but I didn't lose sleep over his defeat. And with I'll Have Another scratching out a day before the race, well, that was more like a downpour on a Fourth of July BBQ - it sucks but, you know, it happens.

But Smarty Jones. Are you kidding me?

I still can't believe Smarty Jones lost that race. Well, okay, when I watch the race and the splits I fully understand why he lost the race, but it still doesn't take away the pain of watching his stride shorten and shorten and shorten within that final quarter mile. There is something incredibly gut-wrenching about watching a horse on the lead in deep stretch desperately trying to hang on for just a few more yards. And there's something even more gut-wrenching when you see another horse closing on the outside and you know that it's only a matter of time before he runs to the front.

When you combine the length of the Triple Crown drought at the time, the manner in which Smarty Jones towered over his rival three-year-old colts all spring long, and the fact that he entered the stretch with the lead to the roar of the Belmont crowd - Birdstone grinding down Smarty Jones in the final furlong in 2004 was like Mike Tyson using your abdomen for sparring.