All eyes are understandably on tomorrow’s Belmont Stakes, a race that is held at a track sitting amidst the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps, New York. It is about as removed as you can get from the quiet bluegrass mornings of slopping pastures and morning mist rising with the sun, revealing grazing dams and foals as far as the eye can see and the brain can fathom. But as the world changes, racing continues its time-honored traditions and so Belmont Park, “a modern-day Circus Maximus,” hosts one of the oldest stakes races in North America each year.
The Belmont Stakes, the oldest jewel in the Triple Crown, predates the Kentucky Derby by eight years and the Preakness Stakes by six. The race came into existence after August Belmont II, an American financier and perhaps more famously known for breeding a legend in the great Man o’ War, created the stakes race that would be named in honor of his father. Since the first running of that race, there has been one stallion who has held the record siring the most winners of the ‘Run for the Carnations,’ and that would be Lexington. For those that don’t know, Lexington led the general sire list 16 times. His progeny (over 600) earned over $1 million during an era that included the Civil War when racing purses were small. One glistening jewel in the crown of Lexington’s triumphs would be that the stallion sired four Belmont winners – General Duke (1868), Kingfisher (1870), Harry Basset (1871) and Duke of Magenta (1878).
For over a century, that record has sat untouched. Even the illustrious Man o’ War, who was as successful as a racehorse as he was a sire, had to settle for only three winners in the race that was named after his breeder. In modern times, another sire has come in along of the ranks of Man o’ War, Fair Play (sire of mighty Man o’ War) and Australian. Tapit is this generation’s Stormcat, a stallion of the A.P. Indy line which stands at Gainesway for a hefty $300,000. But the substantial price tag seems validated when one can see what the son of Pulpit has accomplished in the sales ring and on the racetrack: yearlings that average $883,333 (2017) and mares in foal that averaged $1.6 million (2016). On the track, the stallion has sired 24 G1 winners, five Breeder’s Cup winners and his progeny has earned over $125 million. Needless to say, the stallion has been a titan in the breeding shed and will undoubtedly earn a lasting place in history as one of the great stallions of the breed.
Tapit has earned respect from the New York crowd (as well as the rest of the racing world) for producing top runners for the “Test of the Champions.” In the last four years, Tapit has sired three winners in Tapwrit (2017), Creator (2016) and Tonalist (2014). His one exception came the year that American Pharaoh swept the Triple Crown and even then, there was another son of Tapit, Frosted, to follow the Zayat homebred to the finish line. In Saturday’s race, there are three runners with Tapit in their pedigree that seek to upset the undefeated Justify in his quest for the Triple Crown.
- Tenfold (Curlin x Temptress by Tapit): Winchell Thoroughbreds and Steve Asmussen team up again after producing the 2016 Belmont Stakes winner, Creator. Tenfold is by Curlin, who is turning into another classic sire with a previous winner in 2013 with Palace Malice, a place in 2017 with Irish War Cry and a show with Keen Ice, the only horse to defeat Triple Crown hero American Pharaoh in the 2015 Travers. If the Tapit side of the pedigree doesn’t hold over the Belmont distance, Curlin should be able to hold the other end. And with 2016 winning connections, the valiant 3rd place runner in the Preakness Stakes stands a considerable shot at ending Justify’s bid for greatness.
- Restoring Hope (Giant’s Causeway x Symbol of Freedom by Tapit): From the same barn as Justify comes Restoring Hope, the “other” Bob Baffert entry. Easily eclipsed by the media for his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winning barn mate, Baffert has praised the Giant’s Causeway colt, “He’s a good-looking horse, a nice-looking horse, and he worked really well the other day (6f in 1:13).” Baffert felt the colt deserved a shot to run in the classics. The trainer hopes for a 1-2 bid in the Belmont while others wearily wonder if Baffert’s rabbit might spoil the glory for Justify.
- Hofburg (Tapit x Southing Touch by Touch Gold):
Perhaps the most dangerouscontender in the Belmont Stakes is Hofburg. Trainer Bill Mott won the Belmont Stakes back in 2010 with Drosselmeyer and since Hofburg didn’t run the second leg of the Triple Crown, this son of Tapit has been training and getting comfortable with Belmont Park, arriving in New York almost immediately after the Kentucky Derby. Mott is relatively conservative when it comes to placing his mounts in the classics and the fact that he entered the virtually untried colt in the Kentucky Derby caused a ripple through the handicapping crowd as they tried to deem the colt either a “wise guy” or a valid contender for the 144th Kentucky Derby. Hofburg ran a good a race in the Florida Derby, placing second and then went on to finish 7th in Kentucky Derby. The Juddmonte-bred should appreciate the distance, especially given that his dam was by Touch Gold, another Triple Crown spoiler in 1997 when he, ironically, defeated the Baffert-trained Silver Charm.
The field for the Belmont Stakes is another impressive one. Some notable runners include Vino Rosso, trained by Todd Pletcher who won the Belmont with another son of the mighty Curlin. The G2 Wood Memorial winner ran a disappointing 9th in the Kentucky Derby and then moved to Belmont Park where he has been showing consistent works for his connections. Vino Rosso has proven that he can come in off a fast pace and with a stablemate with the same connections, one can only wonder if Noble Indy will try to attempt to set the pace to allow Vino Rosso to run away with the race as he did with Enticed in the Wood Memorial. Free Drop Billy is another worth mentioning as the son of the 2012 Belmont Stakes winner, Union Rags. A brilliant two-year-old who hasn’t entirely shown up his three-year-old campaign, perhaps the added distance of the 1 ½ will allow Free Drop Billy to stretch his legs and earn a win for the 2018 season. His trainer, Dale Romans, is no stranger to upsetting Triple Crown winners. His Travers horse, Keen Ice, was the only horse to defeat American Pharaoh during his 3-year-old season. Bravazo, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas or “the Coach” as he is fondly known on the backside, is another horse to be on the lookout for. The son of Awesome Again ran a very convincing second to Justify in the Preakness Stakes and with a trainer who has 4 wins in the Belmont Stakes, Lukas knows what it is to get a horse to train successfully for 12 furlongs, a distance that is only seen once in American racing. Bred on a similar cross to 2012 runner-up Paynter (by Adena Springs Awesome Again out of a Cee’s Tizzy mare), the Calumet-bred has a fighting chance to bring another August Belmont trophy for the historic trophy collection for what many consider the ‘Jewel of the Bluegrass.’
So like children on Christmas Eve, members of the Thoroughbred community all wait for Saturday evening to know if the magic of a Triple Crown winner can be repeated in three years. If successful, Bob Baffert would match the great Ben Jones of Calumet during its glory days that saw winners in Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948). Two Triple Crown winners in such a short span of time isn’t unheard of: the 1970’s saw winners in Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) and the 1940’s saw a rapid succession that started with War Admiral in 1937 and that was followed by Whirlaway, Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946) and ending with Citation. The noble runners produced an age known as “the Glory Days of the Track,” a period from 1930’s to the 1970’s. It was an era of intense match races and rivalries, (think of War Admiral and Seabiscuit or Alsab and Whirlaway) of record-breaking money-earners (Stymie, the handicap hero or Citation, the first million-dollar horse of the sport) and from which 10 of the 12 Triple Crown Twinners were produced.
It would be hard to believe that anyone would be disappointed to see those golden days again. Should Justify vanquish this field in the 2018 Belmont Stakes, we might be seeing a rebirth of those long-ago days.
One can only hope.