Two of my favorite races of the year are coming up soon. It didn’t used to be so, but nowadays the Belmont Stakes and the Metropolitan Handicap will be run on the same day – Saturday, June 5 – at Belmont Park. Clearly, no horse now can win both in the same calendar year. Back in the day, though, it was done and it was a very special accomplishment.
Both Grade 1 races are not only among the biggest in the nation, but few races on the American landscape can beat them as far as historical significance. Each around since the 19th century, winning the Belmont Stakes or the Metropolitan Handicap, better known as the Met Mile, always has meant something.
I love each race for its demands and the uniqueness of each distance at Belmont Park. Easily America’s biggest racetrack, the main track oval at Big Sandy allows for a one-turn mile and a once-around trip for 12 furlongs. Held anywhere else, these great races would not have quite the same flavor.
The Belmont Stakes is the perfect final piece of our Triple Crown. If any horse is lucky enough to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the demanding 12 furlongs of the Belmont is ready to stand guard against any horse not quite worthy of immortality.
For years the first leg of the New York Handicap Triple, the Met Mile also is about endurance, but in a different way. Asking its participants to go as hard as they can for a full mile, it offers no in-race breathers. It is a perfect conflict between top sprinters and top distance horses.
Having said all this, winning both races had been rare. And winning both races in the same year was nearly impossible, and is now a thing of the past.
Palace Malice was the last horse to win both when he captured the Belmont Stakes at 3 and came back the following spring to defeat two-time Breeders’ Cup winner Goldencents in the 2014 edition of the Met Mile.
The excellent son of the two-time Horse of the Year Curlin joined an elite list of six horses to have won the Belmont Stakes at 3 and returned as older horses to win the Met Mile, joining The Finn (1915-16), Grey Lag (1921 and 1923), Native Dancer (1953-54), High Gun (1954-55) and Gallant Man (1957-58).
As rare as that has been, it has been even more uncommon to win the two races in the same calendar year. Kudos to you if you remember that Bowling Brook was the first to do it in 1898. Only three horses have done it since, and the first two were both trained by Elliott Burch.
Sword Dancer came next in 1959. He already had run second in the Kentucky Derby, missing by a nose to Tomy Lee, and second in the Preakness. But he came back two weeks later to easily defeat older horses in the Met Mile and then two weeks after that to win the Belmont. Note there were four weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont that year. The impressive double at Belmont Park spurred him on to being named champion 3-year-old.
An even more impressive run was turned in by Arts and Letters 10 years later. On April 24, 1969, the champion son of Ribot won the Blue Grass by 15 lengths. Nine days later he was beaten a neck by his great rival Majestic Prince in the Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, he again lost in a photo to the undefeated colt from California, this time by a head in the Preakness.
In better physical condition than Majestic Prince, Arts and Letters faced older horses in the Met Mile 13 days later and easily rallied by for the victory. Eight days after that, he ended a Triple Crown bid with an easy win in the Belmont over his ailing rival. That amazing 44-day stretch was followed by wins in the Jim Dandy, Travers, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup on his way to a championship.
Finally, there was Conquistador Cielo in 1982. Healthy again after nagging physical issues, the talented son of Mr. Prospector returned from a brief layoff to a facile score in an allowance race at Pimlico on May 8, one week before Aloma’s Ruler captured the Preakness.
Trained by the legendary Woody Stephens, who never was afraid to run his horses, he came back to rip through his competition in a Belmont allowance race on May 19. The 11-length romp was enough to send him against older horses in the Met Mile.
He won it as the 2-1 favorite on May 31. Actually, he did more than win it, running off by 7 1/4 lengths and stopping the timer in 1:33 flat, a track record. It was enough for his veteran trainer to alter plans and run his star back in the Belmont Stakes.
The big story there was that the Met Mile was run on Memorial Day Monday and the Belmont Stakes was on the following Saturday, only five days later. No matter. Overcoming a wide trip into the first turn, Conquistador Cielo flashed his high turn of speed over a sloppy Belmont track. Leaving strong horses such as Gato Del Sol, Linkage and Aloma’s Ruler in his wake, the champion widened his advantage down the stretch to a 14-length win, giving his trainer the first of five consecutive wins in the Belmont Stakes.
Conquistador Cielo’s amazing four-week stretch, and particularly his Met Mile-Belmont Stakes double only five days apart, now seem the stuff of legend.
The game has changed – and not for the better. Still, I have hope that changes can made in Thoroughbred horse racing.
Maybe we can begin to breed a stronger horse again. Perhaps racing can become the focal point rather than breeding sometime in the future. And maybe, just maybe, we can run the Met Mile and the Belmont Stakes on different days again. I know it’s a lot to ask for, but wouldn’t it be nice to see another Conquistador Cielo come along?