Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
The Belmont Stakes
and the wonderful card that NYRA has put together to accompany the third leg of
the Triple Crown is all that anyone has been able to talk about for at least
the last three weeks. But before we can get to Saturday and the superstars that
card will feature, we first must get through Friday. While Friday might not
have the star power that Saturday will certainly have, it does have one thing
that I am truly looking forward to: the Belmont Gold Cup Invitational Stakes.
Gone are the days when true tests of stamina were
fashionable. While once prevalent, graded stakes races at 10 furlongs or longer
only comprise about 8% of the total number of graded stakes. While the Belmont
Gold Cup Invitational is not graded since this will be its inaugural running,
it is unique in that it is carded for 2 mile on the turf.
We have seen all the talk surrounding California Chrome since winning the Preakness. Will he get the
Belmont distance of 1 ½ miles or will he fall short? Now imagine him having to
go another half mile after that. As tough as 1 ½ miles has become in our speed
dominant culture, imagine the tall task being asked of the 12 starters set to
travel 2 miles in the inaugural edition of the Belmont Gold Cup. Seems
staggering, right? And that right there is the problem. Breeders are catering
to precocious, instant gratification 2-year olds rather than older horses that
have the stamina to go 1 ½-2 miles.
As thrilling as sprinting can be, I prefer the longer races.
They require not only stamina on the horses’ parts, but also strategy, in that
jockeys really need to know when to ask their mounts to run and when to ask
them to simply idle. So imagine my dismay when the Breeders’ Cup Marathon was scrapped. That in and of itself was a
bleak day for the industry because if we don’t have the Marathon during the “Super
Bowl of Horse Racing,” then why have any of the other longer distance races
throughout the year? The answer to that question will, sadly, likely be that
there is no reason whatsoever to have those races.
The Belmont has only withstood the test of time at 1 ½ miles
because of its significance to the Triple Crown, but other races have been cut
back throughout the years. The Jockey Club Gold Cup has been trimmed from 2
miles to its current distance of 1 ¼ miles. The Woodward Stakes was cut from 1 ¼
miles to 1 1/8 miles, its current running distance. But though the breeding for
stamina school of thought has fallen out of favor and most classic distance
races have been trimmed, there is some hope.
From a breeding perspective, there is still a long road
ahead as speed is still very much in high demand, but tracks are beginning to
change some of their races for the better in terms of asking for stamina and
not necessarily speed. The Belmont Gold Cup Invitation is one of these races,
but there are others as well. The Jamaica Handicap and the Garden City Stakes,
both Grade 1 events, have been renamed and extended. They’ll be run on the
Stars and Stripes card on July 5 at Belmont under the names the Belmont Derby
Invitational and the Belmont Oaks Invitational and will both be carded at 1 ¼ miles.
The drawback, however, is that both are on the turf, which means that while
most dirt races are shrinking in terms of distance, the turf races are
So while most on Friday will be focused on the
Grade 2 six furlong True North, I’ll be eagerly awaiting the 10th
and final race of the day: the Belmont Gold Cup Invitational. Headed by Twilight Eclipse, all but one if the
field have never been asked to race so far. It will be a true to test of
stamina for all, but due to the lack of experience at the distance, it will
also be a jockey’s race. Strategy and remembering that this is no ordinary race
will be just as important as the ability of the horses to get the distance.
Sadly, the winner will be the one best able to hang around for so long and not
necessarily the “best” horse in the race. But just having a race of this
distance is a start…and a wonderful thing.