Is the Belmont Stakes a True Test of Champions?
While Todd Pletcher and Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable savor their Belmont Stakes win, they've speculated about sending Palace Malice to the Jim Dandy on July 27 as a prep for the mid-summer derby, the Travers Stakes on August 24. How will Palace Malice fare in the remainder of his three year old season?
The Belmont Stakes has long been anointed as the true test of champions. This is true for the colts whose triple crown chances hang on the outcome of the Belmont Stakes, but what about the years when there is no title on the line? One thing's for sure. the Belmont Stakes hasn't been kind to the majority of the last 14 winners.
2000 - The millennium started off with a flying horse. Kentucky Derby hero Fusaichi Pegasus was upset in the Preakness by Red Bullet. With no Triple Crown on the line, Neither Fusaichi Pegasus or Red Bullet bothered to contest the Belmont Stakes. The favorite's role in the Belmont was left to the late-running Aptitude, who had placed second in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness. Aptitude made his customary late charge, but COMMENDABLE, under a crafty ride by Pat Day had opened up a little too much ground. Commendable had only a maiden win to his name and was 17th in the Kentucky Derby before his fifteen minutes of fame in the Belmont Stakes. That was his last victory, although Commendable went on to place third in the Travers and second in the Super Derby. Commendable stands in Korea for a private fee.
2001 – POINT GIVEN was a true champ on the track. His only out of the place finish was a mysterious fifth place in the Kentucky Derby. Despite his off the board finish in the Derby, Point Given got his revenge in the Preakness and left no doubt who the best three year old was after a 12 ¼ length romp in the Belmont. The Chestnut son of Derby/Belmont hero Thunder Gulch went on to victories in the the Haskell and Travers Stakes for good measure, earning Championship Three Year Old honors by a walkover. The big red horse has carried his class to the breeding shed and has sired two champions from nine racing crops.
2002 – After free-running War Emblem ate dirt coming out of the starting gate of the Belmont, it was anybody's race. SARAVA, the second longest shot in the field, shocked racegoers with a ½ length victory over the more experienced Medaglia D' Oro. Sarava didn't hit the board in eight subsequent starts. Retired from a mediocre career at stud, Sarava can be found greeting admirers at Old Friends in Kentucky.
2003 – EMPIRE MAKER, the blue-blooded favorite for the Kentucky Derby, was upstaged in that race by a scrappy little gelding named Funny Cide. To be fair, Empire Maker was nursing a bruised hoof that day. After sitting out the Preakness which Funny Cide won, Empire Maker took his revenge, spoiling Funny Cide's triple crown bid by ¾ length. In the final start of his career, Empire Maker finished second in the Jim Dandy Stakes. After siring 11 Grade 1 winners in the US including Champion Royal Delta, Empire Maker is now enjoying a successful stud career in Japan.
2004 – BIRDSTONE finished off of the board in his prep for the Kentucky Derby and was eighth behind the popular Smarty Jones in the run for the roses. A small-statured horse, Birdstone was withheld from the Preakness and pointed towards the Belmont Stakes. Triple Crown hysteria was at it's peak in days leading up to the Belmont Stakes. The undefeated Smarty Jones was just a formality away from being crowned as the next Triple Crown champ. Unfortunately during the all of the hoopla, someone forgot to give Smarty's jock a riding lesson at Belmont Park. Moving too soon in the race sealed Smarty's fate and the little-known, well bred Birdstone mowed down a staggering, leg-weary Smarty Jones, denying the favorite the crown by a length. Proving he was no flash in the pan, Birdstone earned the Travers' trophy before finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He sired 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine that Bird and 2009 Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird.
2005 – AFLEET ALEX finished off of the board only once leading up to the Triple Crown and many thought he had a chance to win it. In a race filed with blistering early fractions, the Derby collapsed and two long shots, Giacamo and Closing Argument arose from the mud to take the first two positions. Afleet Alex finished a strong third. The nimble colt avoided disaster in winning the Preakness Stakes and showed his true class by beating Belmont Stakes rivals by seven lengths. Unfortunately, the red colt was retired due to injury after the race. Afleet Alex finished off of the board only once in his 12 start racing career. Currently, Afleet Alex is at stud in Kentucky and his most accomplished winner so far is Travers' Stakes hero Afleet Express.
2006 – The Belmont Stakes was an afterthought after the gallant Barbaro was injured at the start of the Preakness stakes. A forgettable field of colts gathered for the Belmont Stakes, which lacked the heroic Derby winner and the sensational new face Bernardini. The Wood Memorial winner Bob And John (who was 17th in the Derby) was made the tepid favorite. The extremely well-bred JAZIL, fourth in the Derby, made a last-to-first run to capture the carnations from Bluegrass Cat. After the Belmont, Jazil placed in two optional claimers and finished off of the board in a Group 3 race. The well-bred stallion is standing in Kentucky and shuttling to South America. He's sired one champion (VEN) and two graded stakes winners from three racing crops.
2007 – As memorable as her half brother Jazil was forgettable, RAGS TO RICHES made history as the first filly to win the race since 1905. The large chestnut with a distinctive white face entered the Belmont Stakes with a four race win-streak under her girth, including a 4 ½ length romp in the Kentucky Oaks. In what would become one of the epic Belmont Battles in history, Rags to Riches stuck her head in front of Preakness hero Curlin at 1 ¼ mile pole. The two chestnuts fought it out to the finish. The stubborn filly refused to let the gallant colt past, and beat him by a head. Rags to Riches raced only once more, finishing second in the Gazelle (G-1). Her nemesis Curlin went on to be a two-time Horse of the Year and sire of this year's Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice. Rags to Riches is grazing in the lush bluegrass fields and is a mother to four foals, none have raced.
2008 – This was supposed to be the year of Brown. Big Brown, the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. Crank up the Triple Crown media circus. Fans either loved Big Brown or considered him a fraud because his controversial trainer admitted to giving the horse steroids. While on the drug, Big Brown was clearly superior to the Kentucky Derby and Preakness fields. Taken off of steroids before the Belmont Stakes plus fighting a quarter crack, Big Brown floundered in the beginning stages of the Belmont and was pulled up by his jockey. As media and fans watched in disbelief, DA' TARA, an unheralded son of Tiznow, stole the race by five lengths while the other jockeys were either taking a nap or looking around for Big Brown. Da Tara never visited the winner's circle again but hit the board five more times in optional claiming races. In 2010 he sold for $180K as a racing or stallion prospect and eventually wound up at stud in South America.
2009 – SUMMER BIRD fit the mold of the typical modern Belmont Stakes winner. He had a single win to his name and finished off of the board in the Kentucky Derby, although he did place in the Arkansas Derby. He skipped the Preakness and recorded a 2 ¾ length victory in the Belmont. Meanwhile, the Kentucky Derby hero Mine That Bird, tired from being beaten up on by Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, finished third. Summer Bird stepped it up during the summer, finishing second in the Haskell, earning a victory in the Travers and Jockey Gold Cup, then placing fourth behind Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Summer Bird's exploits earned him top three year old honors. He is currently standing in Japan.
2010 – DROSSELMEYER took an unconventional route to the Belmont Stakes. He started out on the triple crown trail, but didn't earn enough money to start in the Derby. Instead, Drosselmeyer went with Plan “B.” He prepped with a second place finish in the Dwyer before beating a full field of runners in the Belmont Stakes. Neither the Derby winner Super Saver or the Preakness hero Lookin' At Lucky showed up for the party and Drosselmeyer recorded one of the slowest Belmont Stakes since 1995. Given the rest of the year off, Drosselmeyer returned for his four year old campaign, topping it off with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Drosselmeyer is standing at stud in Kentucky. His offspring were born this year.
2011 – Similar to Drosselmeyer, RULER ON ICE skipped the first two legs of the triple crown. He was largely ignored by the betting public, as the hype surrounded the rubber match between Derby champ Animal Kingdom and Preakness spoiler Shackleford. All except four of the 12 entrants in the Belmont Stakes had competed in the Kentucky Derby. The expected match race was not to be. Ruler On Ice sat behind the pace setting Shackleford, took over in the stretch and held of Stay Thirsty. Animal Kingdom had a nightmare trip and finished sixth. A gelding, Ruler on Ice is still racing. He hit the board in the Haskell, Travers and 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic, but has returned to the winners' circle only once, in an optional claimer. He appears to have lost some of the luster of his earlier years.
2012 – The massive, popular UNION RAGS just couldn't get things to go his way. He lost Juvenile Championship honors by a neck and as the second choice betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Both times everything went against him. Following the trend of previous Belmont winners, Union Rags skipped the Preakness Stakes to rest up for the Belmont. Triple Crown fever was at full throttle after I'll Have Another captured the Derby/Preakness. The temperature dropped to freezing levels when it was announced that I'll Have Another was retired before the Belmont Stakes. Despite the let-down, the magnificent field of the Belmont Stakes put on a great show. It appeared that the lightly raced, but talented Paynter would lead them a merry chase from gate to wire, but it was Union Rags' day to shine, as he got up in the deep stretch to beat Paynter by a neck. Unfortunately, Union Rags' best race was also his last. Union Rags stood his first year at stud in 2013 in Kentucky.
So what does this brief history lesson teach us? The Belmont Stakes is just as crazy as the Kentucky Derby. Anything can and does happen. The majority of the time, the Belmont Stakes winner is an also-ran in the Kentucky Derby and skips the Preakness. Four times, the horse that was supposed to win the Kentucky Derby didn't, but got their revenge in New York. The Belmont Champions are a mixed bag at stud. Those who are well-bred and showed their talent before the Belmont Stakes have gone on to decent careers at stud while the rest faded into obscurity after their 2 ½ minutes in the spotlight.
It's too soon to tell what kind of horse Palace Malice will become. His race record isn't that bad; he finished off the board twice in eight starts. The son of Curlin has won a maiden race and placed in two graded stakes. The Jim Dandy, Travers and Breeders' Cup Classic seem like logical spots to determine whether the Belmont Stakes shocker is a true contender or just a pretender. Palace Malice's pedigree indicates that he'll develop with maturity and we may not have seen the best of him yet.