NEW YORK (AP) Funny how a 1 1/2-mile race – the farthest distance most horses will ever run – can be decided by a head, neck or nose, or by 8, 25 or even 31 lengths.
Secretariat’s record 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, an unforgettable run into Triple Crown lore, still brings on chills when watching replays more than 40 years later. ”He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” the track announcer exclaimed.
American Pharoah will attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner at the Belmont Stakes on June 6. The 3-year-old colt will be the 14th horse with a chance to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978. In 2012, I’ll Have Another’s chance ended a day before the race when he was scratched.
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Secretariat aside, there have been so many close calls. Here’s our list:
SECRETARIAT, BY 31 LENGTHS (1973)
With the sport clamoring for its first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, along comes one of the greatest racehorses in history. Big Red, as he’s known, wins the Derby in record time and then the Preakness in what later becomes record time. On June 9, he’s sent off as the 1-10 favorite in the Belmont; Sham, the Derby and Preakness runner-up, is back for another try in a five-horse field. It’s a two-horse race for a half mile – a fast one, too. On the backstretch, Secretariat, with Ron Turcotte aboard, gathers momentum and begins to open a lead. He covers the first 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 – faster than his Derby-winning time. And then it begins. With every stride as he heads around the far turn, Secretariat moves further ahead, and racing’s most memorable call begins from announcer Chic Anderson: ”Secretariat is alone. He is moving like a tremendous machine. He’s going to be the Triple Crown winner. Unbelievable! An amazing performance. He’s 25 lengths in front!” The winning time of 2:24 remains a record.
AFFIRMED, BY A HEAD (1978)
Affirmed-Alydar. Let’s just call this racing’s greatest rivalry. The score stood 4-2 Affirmed in head-to-head matchups in 1977, and they met next in the Derby. Affirmed, with 18-year-old jockey Steve Cauthen, takes control in the stretch before Alydar stages a tremendous rally but comes up 1 1/2 lengths short. In the Preakness, they’re running together in the stretch, and by the eighth pole it’s Affirmed leading by a neck, and that’s the way it remains as they cross the finish line. Five horses line up for the Belmont, but it’s a two-horse race. Cauthen sends Affirmed to the lead far out from the rail, with Alydar running third a quarter-mile in. The pace is slow, and Alydar, with veteran Jorge Velasquez aboard, moves up alongside with a half-mile to go. They run together, stride for stride, into the top of the stretch. Affirmed has a slight lead, but Alydar is relentless. The horses are so close Cauthen switches from a right-handed to a left-handed whip, and wins by a head. Affirmed becomes the second Triple Crown winner in a row (Seattle Slew won in 1977) and 11th and most recent to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
EASY GOER, BY EIGHT LENGTHS (1989)
Eleven years later, another rivalry emerges, this one West vs. East. Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer. California vs. New York. Easy Goer, a son of Alydar, is the 4-5 Derby favorite, but after a bumpy trip for both, it’s Sunday Silence by 2 1/2 lengths. In the Preakness, Easy Goer again is odds-on to win. The two race neck and neck until the final strides, and Sunday Silence wins by a nose. Back at his home stable in New York, Easy Goer trains well, Sunday Silence has a foot issue and at some point kicks his trainer Charlie Whittingham. Easy Goer’s trainer Shug McGaughey knows his horse can win, and jockey Pat Day executes the game plan perfectly. He waits patiently for Sunday Silence to make a move to the lead, then bursts past him at the top of the stretch and wins by eight lengths. McGaughey’s take? ”I was trying to win the Belmont, not trying to break up a Triple Crown. If we hadn’t won, I hoped he’d have won.”
TOUCH GOLD, BY THREE-QUARTERS OF A LENGTH (1997)
After Silver Charm wins the Derby and Preakness in photo finishes, yet another Triple try is set. Bob Baffert’s Silver Charm faces six rivals, including Touch Gold, who is fitted with a fiberglass patch to protect a cut on his left front foot after stumbling in the Preakness yet still finishing fourth. In the stretch, Silver Charm passes Free House and takes the lead, but Touch Gold, under Chris McCarron, blows past both and wins by three-quarters of a length. ”In a matter of about three seconds,” Silver Charm’s jockey Gary Stevens notes in his book, `The Perfect Ride,’ ”I went from having the highest high I’ve ever had, to the lowest low, an incredible mood swing.”
VICTORY GALLOP, BY A NOSE (1998)
Now it’s Stevens’ turn to play spoiler, and he does, by the closest possible margin. Baffert is back again for another try, this time with a skinny, bargain-basement $17,000 colt named Real Quiet. With Kent Desormeaux riding, Real Quiet wins the Derby by a half-length over Victory Gallop. Another stretch duel with Victory Gallop ensues in the Preakness, and Real Quiet wins by 2 1/4 lengths. The Belmont crowd roars as Real Quiet tires in the stretch and cannot hold off Victory Gallop, who’s closing the gap with every stride. The two cross the finish line together. It’s a photo. Minutes pass. Victory Gallop wins by a nose. ”I felt that was the best ride I’d ever put on a horse,” Stevens wrote in his book.
BIRDSTONE, BY ONE LENGTH (2004)
Smarty Jones is the people’s choice. His owner is a car dealer from Pennsylvania, he’s recovered from fracturing his skull, and he wins a $5 million bonus by capturing the Rebel, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby. And then he wins the Preakness by 11 1/2 lengths. He’s sent off at 3-10 by the Belmont record crowd of 120,139. Under Stewart Elliot, a journeyman not used to riding on Belmont’s 1 1/2-mile oval, Smarty opens a huge lead heading into the stretch, but a 36-1 shot begins to close as the crowd screams. Birdstone blows past Smarty Jones in the final 70 yards and wins by a length, and there’s stunned silence. Yet another Triple spoiled.
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