The Belmont Stakes run for the 150th time Saturday at Belmont Park resembles the roughly 100 runnings dating to the mid-1920s and stands in stark contrast to the early renewals of one of America’s oldest races.
The modern Belmont Stakes holds a fixed spot on the calendar as the third jewel of the Triple Crown, run at the series’ longest distance of 1 1/2 miles and in early June. The race has seen more than its fair share of changes and a historic review shows the race run at five distances, sometimes clockwise, under the auspices of myriad racing jurisdictions at four tracks, not run twice because of anti-gambling laws in New York, occasionally contested in late May and once even in November.
Inaugurated by the American Jockey Club with a goal to “attract the best and build a prestige for American racing comparable to the Epsom Derby of England, the Belmont Stakes was first run Thursday, June 19, 1867 at the former Jerome Park. Constructed on a 230-acre tract of land in what was then Westchester County – and now the Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx – Jerome Park only opened for racing nine months before the first Belmont Stakes.
The first 23 editions of the race – named for August Belmont Sr., who co-founded Jerome Park with Leonard Jerome – were run at Jerome Park, which featured a ribbon-shaped racecourse with a spacious grandstand, before the race was moved to Morris Park. A little more than a mile from what is now Van Cortlandt Park, Morris Park hosted the Belmont for 15 years before it was moved when Belmont Park, just on the border of Queens and Nassau County, opened in 1905. The Belmont was not run in 1911 and 1912 because of anti-gambling laws and during the reconstruction of Belmont Park from 1963-1967 the race was run at Aqueduct.
The following is a look back at some of the memorable editions of the Belmont Stakes, divided into three categories – ancient, yesteryear and modern.
Eleven 3-year-olds were nominated to the first running of the Belmont Stakes and only four faced the starter – the Francis Morris entry of the filly Ruthless and Monday and the duo of DeCourcey and Rivoli. Ruthless moved up to challenge DeCourcey late in the race before edging clear of that rival late, winning by a head and earning $1,850 by covering the 1 5/8-mile distance in 3:05.
Later regarded by legendary racing historian Walter S. Vosburgh as the “best filly he had ever seen,” Ruthless added the Travers Stakes and Sequel Stakes at Saratoga and retired with a leg injury with seven victories in 11 starts.
Ruthless’ name appears frequently in write-ups of the Belmont in modern times, as the first winner and one of only three fillies to win the race. She held the honor as the only filly to win until Tanya scored in 1905 and those two were joined by Rags To Riches in 2007.
Other winners of the early editions of the Belmont included 1871 champion Harry Bassett, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2010 and multiple champion who won 14 races in a row and 17 of 18 career starts; Calvin in the 1875 edition over a field of 14 that included inaugural Kentucky Derby winner Aristides and eventual Hall of Famer Tom Ochiltree; Hall of Fame inductee Duke of Magenta in 1878; and the undefeated Colin in 1908.
The lone running of the Belmont not in May or June came in the 29th edition, won by Belmar on a dreary and “disagreeable” day at Morris Park Nov. 2, 1895. The race was moved to the fall that year because the New York Jockey Club closed out its affairs, leaving the Westchester Racing Association to handle the race.
Classics of Yesteryear
The year after the sport’s first recognized Triple Crown winner – Sir Barton in 1919 – arguably one of American racing’s greatest horses won the Belmont Stakes.
Pitted against just one opponent, Man o’ War ran his record to 12-for-13 with a 20-length victory over Donnacona in the 52nd running of the Belmont. “Big Red” won the 1 3/8-mile Belmont – the distance the race was run from 1906 to 1925 – in an American record time of 2:14 1/5. Man o’ War, who did not run in the Kentucky Derby but won the Preakness, eventually retired at the end of his 3-year-old season with 20 wins in 21 starts.
A historic profile of the Belmont Stakes in the April 22, 1989 edition of The Blood-Horse magazine outlined how the “exacting distance of the Belmont prevents any but a genuine horse from winning,” and later opined that “the luckiest horse wins the Kentucky Derby, the fittest horse wins the Preakness and the best horse wins the Belmont.”
The results from the post-Man o’ War years until modern times certainly validate that belief. Seven of the 12 Triple Crown winners – Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and Citation (1948) – capped their historic runs with Belmont Stakes victories during that period.
The Belmont’s distance of 1 1/2 miles – which Justify will attempt to navigate Saturday to become another Triple Crown winner – was permanently changed in 1926.
Man o’ War’s record 20-length margin was unchallenged until 1943, when Count Fleet capped his Triple Crown run with a monstrous 25-length tally over Fairy Manhurst and Deseronto. Count Fleet’s victory was his 10th consecutive and the Belmont wound up being his final career start after an ankle injury didn’t respond properly to treatment.
The Triple Crown went through two sizable droughts in the modern era – from 1948 to 1973 and from 1978 to 2015 – not that there weren’t opportunities when the Belmont Stakes rolled around. Six times in the 1950s and ’60s there was a chance and again in 1971 before the quintessential Belmont Stakes moment arrived in 1973.
Conversations about the Belmont Stakes often begin and end with Secretariat, a force of a Thoroughbred who rolled to electric victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and seemed destined to sweep the series in 1973. Also nicknamed “Big Red,” Secretariat delivered a masterpiece performance in his Belmont. He faced only four opponents in the 105th Belmont, the chief opposition being Derby and Preakness runner-up Sham.
Secretariat quickly slammed the door on any challenge from Sham before pulling away to a 31-length victory in stakes-, track- and world-record time of 2:24 to end a 25-year Triple Crown drought. His statue graces the Belmont Park paddock.
Two more Triple Crown winners followed – Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978 – and a third was in line when Spectacular Bid came to New York with a chance to sweep in 1979. Spectacular Bid was foiled in the Belmont, finishing fourth after his trainer said he stepped on a safety pin that caused him to be lame the morning of the race.
Spectacular Bid started another long drought, which eventually reached 37 years, until American Pharoah ended it with his victory in 2015. Pitted against seven opponents, the bay colt led from start to finish and won by 5 1/2 lengths in 2:26.65 – one of the fastest editions in the race’s history, affectionately known as the “Test of a Champion.”