The Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park has a long, rich history of producing some of the greatest races seen on the east coast. It is the race where the best of the best clash. It is the race where champions are made.
For years, it has been this early autumn race that has been the choice of many leading three-year-olds to test their elders. The likes of Summer Bird, Curlin, Bernardini, Albert the Great, Skip Away, and Easy Goer all used this race to test their mettle against their elders, emerging victorious. It was this race many used as a stepping stone to greatness or used as a platform to displace their brilliance.
Just two years ago, Summer Bird was finally coming into his own. After running a deceptively good third in the Arkansas Derby, in the spring of 2009, he came back to run sixth in the Kentucky Derby. It was not bad considering his lack of experience. After that race he grew by leaps and bounds both physically and mentally. Summer Bird’s next start would be the Belmont Stakes where he would upset Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, when he swooped past that rival and Dunkirk, to win going away.
He would go one to run second in the Haskell and win the Travers, displaying a new dimension of tactical speed, which he would use again in the Gold Cup, where he would throw down with Quality Road. Despite beating that rival easily in the Travers, some still thought the more brilliant and flashy Quality Road was hitting his best stride, and would prevail. That was not the case. The newly learned tactical speed allowed Summer Bird to stay in touch with his rival throughout the race, and when the real running began, the colts superior stamina kicked in. It was an exciting duel, but in the end Summer Bird was pulling away, solidifying his champion status.
For Easy Goer the Jockey Club Gold Cup was not used as an initial test against his elders, but a platform for him to display his complete dominance over the east coast division. He had already swept both the Whitney and Woodward, both of Saratoga’s premier races for older handicap males. He crushed his opposition in the Whitney, then won geared down in the Woodward. The Gold Cup would be no different, as the big chestnut shrugged off the challenge of Cryptoclearance to romp under the line, a four length winner. In any other year, he would have been a champion, but I am sure that there are many out there who don’t hold his three losses to Sunday Silence against him. For when he and that rival were separated, Easy Goer left no room for anyone to doubt his dominance and brilliance.
In 2007, Curlin unlike the other two examples, was not using the Gold Cup as a display of brilliance, but was trying to restore some of the luster that had been lost when he finished a dull third in the Haskell Stakes. He had run brilliantly in the Triple Crown, winning against much more experienced foes and narrowly losing to a much fresher rival. But after running a lackluster race in the Haskell, many wondered if the big colt’s inexperience had finally caught up to him, causing him to hit the proverbial brick wall. The Gold Cup was his chance for redemption, but it would not come easy.
In the 2007 Gold Cup Curlin would face a monster in the Handicap division by the name of Lawyer Ron. The speedy son of Langfuhr, was on a two race winning streak that included a record shattering Whitney win and a eight length Woodward romp. Curlin would need to bring his A-game to run with Lawyer Ron, and boy did he bring it. As the field turned for home it was Lawyer Ron, whose quick turn of foot propelled him to the lead, while Curlin was still trying to uncoil his massive strides, in second. With a furlong to go Lawyer Ron still had a narrow lead, but Curlin’s massive strides were beginning to eat away at that lead. Inside the final sixteenth Curlin drew on even terms with his rival, and in the shadow of the wire it was Curlin, with the heart of a lion, prevailing by a neck.
Stay Thirsty looks to add his name to the hallowed list of three year olds who defeated their elders in this race. Despite how easy it may look on paper, one should not just hand him the win. There are reasons why other good and talented three year olds have fallen short. It takes a superiorly talented three-year-old to prevail against his elders at the Classic distance. In order to win, Stay Thirsty will have to prove that he is not just a good three-year-old, but a great one.