clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2014 Belmont Stakes: Triple Crown winning trips

New, 15 comments

If I were to ask you to name the running style in the Belmont for eight of the 11 Triple Crown winners, would you immediately respond "front runner"?

USA TODAY Sports

Secretariat - 1973 Belmont Stakes

The iconic image of the sport of horse racing in America is the great Secretariat pulling away from his outmatched rivals in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Seizing control of the race during the opening furlong, Secretariat ran his way to Triple Crown glory by running his helpless foes into the ground in quarter mile after quarter mile after quarter mile; by the time he reached the wire the rest of the field was a mere blip in the distance.

The odds of a horse matching Secretariat's final time and margin of victory in the '73 Belmont are "slim to none", but the manner in which he rolled to Triple Crown glory - leading the 1 1/2 mile Belmont from gate to wire* - is not as uncommon as one would initially believe based on the conditions of the race. In fact, of the 11 horses to win the Triple Crown, eight of them won the Belmont by taking command of the race right from the start, including the last four - Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and Citation (see chart below). While Secretariat's performance will never be duplicated, winning the Belmont from the front is not an impossible task. And a colt doesn't have to run a historically fast race to win from the front, as evidenced by Seattle Slew in 1977. They simply have to be the best and fittest horse in the field with an ability to grind their opposition down with the passing of each furlong.

*While Secretariat led at every chart call of the race, he actually didn't lead every step from the gate. After the early race shake out, Sham ended up sticking a head in front at various points through the first half mile but was run into submission before the pair hit the halfway mark of the race.

Seattle Slew - 1977 Belmont Stakes

No, I don't actually think California Chrome should go to the lead in the 2014 Belmont Stakes, unless the rest of the field has no desires to show any kind of early speed. But there is something to be said for the best horse - and one with a very high cruising speed - simply going to the front and running the shoes off of the competition. Not only does the horse on the lead get to dictate terms to the rest of the field - a sort of "come and catch me" situation - but running on the lead is a good way to stay clear of traffic, avoid a wide trip, and generally ensure a clean trip around the track. Of course, leading every step of the Belmont requires a horse to grind through a daunting mile and a half journey. So there's that.

California Chrome has never displayed a "need to lead" running style in his career but he can run that way if the situation presents itself, as he did when he won the San Felipe back in March. And since you never want to take a horse out of his element, nothing good could come from attempting to alter a colt's running style from his preferred trip. If, however, the other potential speed horses were to fail to get to the front early, like Social Inclusion in the Preakness, perhaps Victor Espinoza takes what the field gives him.

Smarty Jones - 2004 Belmont Stakes

I suppose it comes down to a choose your poison situation for a horse like California Chrome: do you take the stalking trip you had for the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness, knowing the rest of the field will likely apply pressure to your outside, inside, and all other sides at various point of the race - a sort of "Smarty Jones Scenario"? Or do you perhaps take the race to the rest of the field, dictating your own terms instead of the other way around? (Which could also end up being the Smarty Jones Scenario*.) Additionally, looking at the potential Belmont field, we are not guaranteed to have a lot of horses that want to go to the lead standing in the starting gate.

Early speed colt Social Inclusion is no lock for the Belmont; Todd Pletcher is still considering the seven panel Woody Stephens instead of the Belmont. And while Tonalist controlled the Peter Pan from the start, that effort came over a sloppy and sealed main track; that was the only time in his four race career when he's raced on the lead. After that we're really only left with Samraat as the last horse that prefers to run up front early.

As much as I don't think the connections of California Chrome will adopt a "go to the lead" strategy for the Belmont, I could certainly see the race unfolding where the Derby and Preakness winner finds himself out front after the first quarter mile.

*The Smarty Jones Belmont Stakes is probably an apt comparison race to look at because, in many ways, that race was the poster child of how to attack a colt trying to win the Triple Crown. Smarty initially tried to stalk the pace but by the time the field was on the backstretch, he went to the front after taking shot after shot from his rivals. Much is made of Jerry Bailey and Eddington applying pressure to Smarty Jones on the backstretch, but how about Rock Hard Ten going to the lead and then coming back to provide pressure from the inside? Smarty Jones chance to win the Belmont was to open up as big of a lead as possible and make his rivals come get him in deep stretch. It almost worked if not for the early pressure that caused him to go much too fast through the first mile of the race - 1:35.40 for the mile.

Below is a summary of the last ten Triple Crown winning Belmont Stakes; "Early pace" is the leader after a mile (and finished); winner is noted with their running position after a mile; also included: the favorite's finish and odds, field size, margin of victory, and final time. I excluded Sir Barton's Belmont victory as it occurred when the race was run at a 1 3/8 miles but, if you're curious, the first Triple Crown winner did not go gate to wire (he sat second through much of the race) and he faced a field of just two rivals.

Belmont charts via BelmontStakes.com. And and all errors the result of my typos.

Year Early Pace (Finish) Winner (Mile) Favorite Field Margin Time
1978 Affirmed (1st) Affirmed (1st) Affirmed (1st, 3/5) 5 hd 2:26.80
1977 Seattle Slew (1st) Seattle Slew (1st) Seattle Slew (1st, 2/5) 8 4 2:29.60
1973 Secretariat (1st) Secretariat (1st) Secretariat (1st, 1/10) 5 31 2:24.00
1948 Citation (1st) Citation (1st) Citation (1st, 1/5) 8 8 2:28.20
1946 Hampden (4th) Assault (4th) Assault (1st, 7/5) 7 3 2:30.80
1943 Count Fleet (1st) Count Fleet (1st) Count Fleet (1st, 1/20) 3 25 2:28.20
1941 Whirlaway (1st) Whirlaway (1st) Whirlaway (1st, 1/5) 4 1 1/2 2:31.00
1937 War Admiral (1st) War Admiral (1st) War Admiral (1st, 4/5) 7 3 2:28.60
1935 Cold Shoulder (4th) Omaha (4th) Omaha (1st, 4/5) 5 1 1/2 2:30.60
1930 Gallant Fox (1st) Gallant Fox (1st) Gallant Fox (1st, 8/5) 4 3 2:31.60

A lot of these Triple Crown winning gate-to-wire Belmont's are the result of small field sizes; as we see every day within this sport, it's much easier for a horse to control a race from start to finish, regardless of the distance, when there are very few horses available to challenge the leader. Big fields typically contain a good amount of cheap speed which negates the ability of a horse to seize command of the race and lull the field to sleep. But those small fields of five or six are tailor made for a horse to lead them all the way around the track.

On its face, the sheer length of the mile and a half Belmont Stakes is enough to turn away most connections from sending the best horse to the front in the hopes of stealing the race on the front-end. But wiring the Belmont isn't unheard of, and you don't have to be named Secretariat to do it - as Da' Tara, Point Given, and Hansel have demonstrated since 1990. Like with many things in horse racing, it all comes down to whether or not the horse is good enough.

For a perspective on the last 20+ years of Belmont Stakes winners, below is a summary of the pace horse at the mile marker (and finish), winner (with position after a mile), and performance of the favorite* at the Belmont Stakes since 1990.

*Bob and John was the favorite in 2006? I completely forgot about that year; certainly not a record setting Belmont field.

Year Early Pace (Finish) Winner (Mile) Favorite
2013 Oxbow (3nd) Palace Malice (3rd) Orb (3rd, 2/1)
2012 Paynter (2nd) Union Rags (3rd) Dullahan (7th, 5/2)
2011 Shackleford (5th) Ruler On Ice (3nd) Animal Kingdom (6th, 5/2)
2010 First Dude (3rd) Drosselmeyer (5th) Ice Box (9th, 8/5)
2009 Dunkirk (2nd) Summer Bird (9th) Mine That Bird (3rd, 6/5)
2008 Da' Tara (1st) Da' Tara (1st) Big Brown (9th, 2/5)
2007 CP West (5th) Rags to Riches (5th) Curlin (2nd, 6/5)
2006 Bob and John (8th) Jazil (7th) Bob and John (8th, 9/2)
2005 Pinpoint (11th) Afleet Alex (8th) Afleet Alex (1st, 6/5)
2004 Smarty Jones (2nd) Birdstone (4th) Smarty Jones (2nd, 2/5)
2003 Funny Cide (3rd) Empire Maker (2nd) Funny Cide (3rd, Even)
2002 Medaglia d'Oro (2nd) Sarave (4th) War Emblem (8th, 7/5)
2001 Point Given (1st) Point Given (1st) Point Given (1st, 7/5)
2000 Hugh Hefner (8th) Commendable (2nd) Aptitude (2nd, 9/5)
1999 Silverbulletday (7th) Lemon Drop Kid (8th) Charismatic (3rd, 7/5)
1998 Chilito (6th) Victory Gallop (9th) Real Quiet (2nd, 4/5)
1997 Wild Rush (6th) Touch Gold (4th) Silver Charm (2nd, Even)
1996 Natural Selection (7th) Editor's Note (5th) Cavonnier (14th, 3/1)
1995 Star Standard (2nd) Thunder Gulch (2nd) Thunder Gulch (1st, 7/5)
1994 Go For Gin (2nd) Tabasco Cat (3rd) Strodes Creek (3rd, 7/5)
1993 Antrim Rd. (9th) Colonial Affair (5th) Prairie Bayou (13th, 5/2)
1992 Casual Lies (5th) A.P. Indy (4th) A.P. Indy (1st, 6/5)
1991 Hansel (1st) Hansel (1st) Strike the Gold (2nd, 2/1)
1990 Thirty Six Red (2nd) Go And Go (3rd) Unbridled (4th, 6/5)