Originally published in the May 29, 2004 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine
It's not easy playing the role of villain in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). They're the guys wearing the black hats, the party poopers, the evil-doers of the Triple Crown. In the last 35 years, there have been three Triple Crown winners, and 11 horses that fell short in the 1 1/2-mile "Test of a Champion" after winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I).
There is no clear-cut trend for how these spoil-sports brought the curtain down in New York without a happy ending. Some have run in all three races; some, like last year's winner, Empire Maker
, and 1999 Belmont winner, Lemon Drop Kid
, skipped the Preakness after running in the Kentucky Derby.
However, some common themes, training nuances, and tactical changes were instrumental in reversing the fortunes of these previous also-rans. The biggest factor has been familiarity with the track.
"I ran my first horse in the Belmont in 1999 with Pineaff, and the thing I remembered most was that he got swallowed up by the racetrack," said trainer Kenny McPeek, who sent out 70-1 Sarava to win the 2002 Belmont (War Emblem finished eighth). "I think of the three different surfaces of the Triple Crown, Belmont's is the toughest.
"I knew I was an outsider and I needed an edge," he said. "So we went (to Belmont Park) early. We got there two weeks ahead of time and he had two works over the track. In June, if it's warm, the track can get a little dried out; that's why they call it 'Big Sandy.' "
Other horses that put a dagger in the back of Triple Crown bids also had plenty of experience with Belmont. Easy Goer won two grade I races over the surface as a 2-year-old; Lemon Drop Kid
won the previous year's Futurity (gr. I). Arts and Letters, Coastal, and Summing also had broken their maidens at Belmont the year before upsetting the "Big Apple" cart. Bet Twice also had a start over the track in 1986, running third in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I).Lemon Drop Kid carried another ace up his sleeve with a recent race over the track. "Being at Belmont helped," said trainer Randy Schulhofer, son of Hall of Fame trainer Scotty Schulhofer, who saddled Lemon Drop Kid. "He ran in the Peter Pan (gr. II) and was third that day (to Best of Luck and Treasure Island). After the Derby, there was no need to run in the Preakness. He was a horse that wanted more distance and the Derby did take a little out of him. The Peter Pan was two weeks before the Belmont, and the Sunday before the race, he had a five-eighths workout, galloping out six furlongs."It's an historic side note that while he was learning the ropes to become a trainer, Smarty Jones' conditioner, John Servis, worked under Schulhofer.Trainer David Hofmans was not a New York regular, but he elected to ship Touch Gold to Belmont right after running fourth in the Preakness in 1997. "I thought we had a good chance after the Preakness," Hofmans said. "I believe he only had one work, one seven-eighths work, between the races. I was under a lot of pressure from the press because the other horses were having two works. But I had to stick to my guns, my game plan."While Hofmans tinkered with his work schedule, trainer Elliott Walden modified his race-day tactics with Victory Gallop in 1998."I was so disappointed after the Preakness; I didn't see any hope of beating Real Quiet after that," he said. "I thought that after the Derby we had the better horse, but just had a bad trip. After the Preakness, we changed tactics. Gary Stevens rode him for the first time in the Belmont and we decided to take it to Real Quiet. We were head-and-head with him down the backside before he (Real Quiet) pulled ahead in the early stretch."Victory Gallop closed a four-length gap in deep stretch to beat Real Quiet by a nose, the closest margin ever for a Triple Crown takedown. Playing the role of spoiler offers a certain amount of infamy, as well as a perk: winning a classic race. And it proves that to win the Triple Crown, you have to have that special horse.Walden said the New York crowd "was a little hostile" when it came time for his celebration in the face of Real Quiet's defeat. "There were some boos, but it was a mixed group," he said. "I still have people come up to me today and ask what it was like to spoil the Triple Crown," he said. "They ask me if I feel guilty. I don't because Victory Gallop deserved to win one of those races. I was happy for the horse.""A lot of people thought Silver Charm was a cinch," Hofmans said. "I had to defend myself all week long because some folks thought I had a chance and they wanted to know how I felt about spoiling the opportunity. But to be a Triple Crown winner, you have to beat everybody. If you're the heavyweight champ, you have to fight. You have to earn it if you want to be mentioned along with Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and those horses."