It is a unique event on the racing calendar, this third jewel of the Triple Crown we know as the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
No other race sees its importance fluctuate in the minds of so many year in and year out. If a horse is going for the Triple Crown, the Belmont is the epitome of racing and hordes of media and more than 100,000 fans descend on the beautiful plant just outside the New York City line on Long Island. But if the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Preakness (both gr. I) are won by different horses, the Belmont, to many, becomes an afterthought, a 12-furlong anachronism to be skipped in favor of less demanding heats later in the season. It struggles to attract attendees, both human and equine.
For those that have New York entrenched in their family tree, however, the Belmont remains the highlight of the racing calendar. So while it has become increasingly rare that horsemen run their charges in all three legs of the Triple Crown (unless they have won the first two), some remain steadfast in their belief that the Belmont is well worth trying.
D. Wayne Lukas will send out both Oxbow and Will Take Charge for the third time in the Triple Crown series. And over at the Phipps Stable compound just inside the stable gate at beautiful Belmont, trainer Shug McGaughey is preparing to send Derby winner Orb postward for Saturday’s marquee event.
While some racing "experts"question why McGaughey would run Orb back in the Belmont after his dull effort in the Preakness, McGaughey is merely following the tenets for which he and owners Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable were being lauded a month ago. These were "old school" horsemen who listened to what the horse was telling them, everyone said, men who based their training methods and race selection on what was best for the animal.
Now that McGaughey is saying that Orb is giving him every sign of being ready to run in the Belmont, he is being second-guessed by last month’s admirers. What the critics seem to miss is that the Belmont, for some, is still a race they thirst to win, whether or not a Triple Crown is on the line.
"This is a very special race for us," stated Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps.
Phipps, who co-owns Orb with his first cousin Janney, is a New York native whose ancestors made their fortune in the state and established one of the legendary racing stables in this country’s history there. Phipps served for many years as the head of the New York Racing Association, on whose board Janney sits today.
"I’d love to win the Belmont," Phipps continued. "My father (Ogden Phipps) won it (Easy Goer, 1989) and I'd love to win it. The horse has shown Shug nothing that says he shouldn’t run in it."
Janney is a Marylander through and through. His parents, Stuart Janney Jr. and Barbara Phipps Janney, excelled in steeplechasers there and began in Thoroughbreds when Janney’s grandmother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, gave them three broodmares. The operation took a turn north to New York once the Janneys engaged trainer Frank Whiteley to condition their horses in the name of their Locust Hill Farm. They bred a filly out of their mare Shenanigans who caused a stir up in the Big City. Ruffian became a superstar racing over the tracks of New York before tragically breaking down in a match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure at Belmont in 1975.
When Janney gets together with McGaughey in the mornings at Belmont to watch his horses train, the two men sit on benches near the end of the giant grandstand, directly across the racing surface from the infield grave that holds Ruffian’s remains. You think Janney might consider Belmont Park a special place, and New York a special place to race?
"If you’re going to have a sport, you have to flourish in New York," said Janney. "It’s the lynchpin that holds the industry together. And the Belmont is a great, great race that we want to support, but not to the point where we’re going to do anything that’s not in the best interest of the horse. The horse is doing well right now and here we are, and it would be fabulous to win this race."
Win or lose, Orb belongs in this race as long as he gives McGaughey the right signs. Because New York still matters to a lot of people who still matter.