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Once around its massive main dirt track is 1 ½ miles, making Belmont Park easily the biggest racetrack in the United States. That trip, from finish line back to the finish line, also serves as the grueling distance navigated each year by the horses of the Belmont Stakes. Nicknamed the “Test of the Champion”, it serves as the final leg of America’s Triple Crown.
Numerous horses have made it to New York two-thirds of the way to immortality, only to wilt under the pressures of “Big Sandy” and the final few furlongs of their date with destiny. It is said that if you can make it there (New York), you can make it anywhere, and that is very much true in American racing. Only a select few over the last 100 years have been able to complete the sweep at Belmont Park.
Belmont Park is far from a one-trick pony, though. As the New York City area’s premier racetrack, it serves as host to countless big races during their annual two racing meets. From young juveniles to veteran older runners, and from dirt, to turf, and sprinters to routers, most of the best horses the United States has to offer will run at New York’s track, and that has been true for more than a century.
Located just over the border from one of New York City’s five boroughs (Queens), Belmont Park is New York through and through, and will always be best known as the home of the Belmont Stakes.
As home to the “Test of the Champion”, Belmont Park becomes the focal point of the racing world each June, and this is especially true when a sweep of the Triple Crown is still possible. The final leg is the centerpiece but is also just one race during a huge weekend of racing called the Belmont Stakes Festival, which attracts many of the best horses in the country.
Whether it be Belmont Stakes day, or any afternoon at Belmont Park, it is a melting pot for not only the many cultures of New York City and Long Island but also for the many visitors of the largest city in the United States
Besides the massive nature of the racing surfaces, the facility itself is one of the largest and oldest tracks in America. Three levels of grandstand and a large clubhouse give it 33,000 spacious seats.
Unlike Churchill Downs and Pimlico, Belmont Park does not open its large infield to fans. Still, as many as 120,139 fans have attended the track in one afternoon. That attendance record was set when Birdstone famously denied Smarty Jones a sweep of the Triple Crown in 2004.
Other than the biggest race of the Spring/Summer meeting, Belmont Park plays host to numerous other important stakes races. All told, the track currently has a total of 19 Grade 1 races throughout the year, the most of any track in the United States. The Fall meet at Belmont Park does not have the Belmont Stakes, but it has many big races in each division of racing.
For well over a century, Belmont Park has attracted almost all of the sport’s biggest legends. It all began back in 1902, when a group led by August Belmont II and William C. Whitney looked for land to construct the biggest and grandest track in the U.S.
To be modeled after the finest tracks in Europe, they found their location on a 600+ acre parcel of land on the border of Queens County and Nassau County. This property is what we now know as Belmont Park
The first day of racing for the big track came on May 4, 1905, with better than 40,000 fans in attendance. Patrons at the grand opening witnessed August Belmont II’s Blandy winning the $1,500 Belmont Inaugural. The current purse for the Belmont Stakes more than a century later is $1.5 million.
From 1963 through 1968, Belmont Park needed to be shut down while a new grandstand was built. The original had become less than safe.
The old structure was demolished in 1963, and over the next five years a new grandstand was built. During this down period, nearby Aqueduct Racetrack hosted all the local racing. A new inner turf course was also constructed at this time.
The new Belmont Park was opened for racing again on May 20, 1968 with the largest grandstand in American racing.
Although originally run at Jerome Park, the Belmont Stakes has been run since 1867, making it one of the oldest races in the United States. Consistently run at Belmont Park since the grand opening in 1905, the Belmont Stakes has taken its rightful place among the great events of American racing, full of history and tradition.
You cannot talk about the Belmont Stakes without talking about the legendary trainer, Woody Stephens. The Hall of Fame trainer pulled off one of the greatest training feats in the history of racing when he saddled the winner of the Belmont Stakes in five consecutive editions.
It’s a record that is likely never to be duplicated. A very successful trainer for decades before the amazing run, his five winners were: Conquistador Cielo (1982), Caveat (1983), Swale (1984), Creme Fraiche (1985) and Danzig Connection (1986).
Like all the biggest of races around the world, the Belmont Stakes is a gathering place for not only serious race fans, but also for those wanting to be part of the spectacle and to have a good time. Part of that good time, is enjoying a few libations while in attendance.
While beer is the drink of choice for many in the crowd, it is actually the Belmont Jewel, that has become the official drink of the Belmont. Like Kentucky’s Mint Julep, the Belmont Jewel features bourbon. Mixed with lemonade and pomegranate juice, it became the official drink in 2011, replacing the Belmont Breeze, which was also a bourbon cocktail.
One of America’s greatest singers, Frank Sinatra is associated with many famous songs, and none of them mean more to the people of New York than his “New York, New York”. It’s no wonder that it was adopted by the Belmont Stakes as their theme song.
Originally the theme song from the 1977 Martin Scorsese film New York, New York, it is now played each year as the Belmont Stakes horses make their way onto the track, signalling the large crowd to get even louder and get ready for the approaching race.
While the Belmont Stakes is known as the “Test of the Champion”, it has a second nickname. Also known as “The Run for the Carnations”, each year the winning horse is draped in a blanket of white carnations in the winner’s circle, much like the traditions of the Kentucky Derby (roses) and the Preakness (Black-Eyed Susans).
Pure white carnations stand for love and luck, and the Belmont Stakes blanket takes approximately 700 carnations, which are imported from Colombia, to create the 40-pound prize.
A fixture not only for Belmont Stakes day, but year-round, is the statue of Secretariat in the Belmont Park paddock. The monument, commemorating the great horse’s incredible performance on June 9, 1973, was made by sculptor John Skeaping in 1974. It was later presented as a gift of Paul Mellon to the National Museum of Racing, and now stands in the center of the paddock, where it stands as one of the most recognizable features of Belmont Park.
The Belmont Stakes is one of the most prized races in America, and it also is the final leg of the most-watched series in racing. Preceded by the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, five weeks earlier, and the Preakness Stakes, two weeks earlier at Pimlico, the three legs of the series comprise the Triple Crown.
Not only does it act as the final decider of who does or does not become a Triple Crown winner, but the Belmont Stakes also happens to be the most difficult to win, due to the demanding nature of the 1 ½-mile trip at Belmont Park.
The 13 horses to sweep the series beginning with the Kentucky Derby are:
It is no exaggeration to say that nearly every single true legend of American racing has run at Belmont Park on at least one occasion. Listed below are just a few of the biggest stars.
Of the 13 horses to sweep the Triple Crown, none is more famous than Secretariat. The Horse of the Year in each of his two seasons on the racetrack, “Big Red”, as he was known, not only became the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown back in 1973, but to this day he also holds the stakes record in all three legs.
It’s at Belmont Park, though, where he defined his greatness with a 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. His final time of 2:24 is a record which will likely never be broken. A regular at Belmont, he also still holds the track record for 9 furlongs, when he ran 1:45.40 in an impressive win against older horses in the first-ever edition of the Marlboro Cup.
From a different era, Man O’ War was the original “Big Red” and was joined by Secretariat more than a half-century later as the two most recognizable horses in American racing history. Undefeated in seven career starts at Belmont Park, it’s where the great horse began his remarkable career in 1919.
Although he never had a chance at the Triple Crown due to missing the Kentucky Derby, he won the 1920 edition of the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths. In his penultimate run at Belmont Park, he won the Lawrence Realization Stakes by an astounding 100 lengths.
Arguably American racing’s two greatest geldings, both Kelso and Forego were regulars at Belmont Park. A five-time Horse of the Year, Kelso ran there six times in the early 60’s before the track was closed for renovations.
More than a decade later, Forego, a three-time Horse of the Year, called Belmont Park his home for six seasons of racing. All told, Forego thrilled fans at “Big Sandy” an amazing 28 times.
Years later the legendary pair came together to be celebrated, parading in front of the crowd at Belmont Park before the 1983 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
America’s most famous filly, she won the first two starts of her career at Belmont Park, and came back there the following season to clinch a sweep of the female version of the Triple Crown with a front-running victory in the 1 ½-mile Coaching Club American Oaks.
Tragically, the undefeated filly ran to her demise at Belmont Park when she broke down in a match race with the male champion and Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. Unable to be saved from her injuries, Ruffian is buried in the Belmont Park infield.
And of course, the history of great horses to compete at Belmont Park would not be complete without talking about the other Triple Crown winners. There was Citation, who won 19 of his 20 starts in his amazing season of 1948; Seattle Slew, who became the first ever horse to win the Triple Crown while still undefeated; Affirmed, who defeated his great rival Alydar in each of the three legs of 1978; American Pharoah, who became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years when he swept the series in 2015; and Justify who ended the “Jinx of Apollo”, becoming the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, after not having raced as a 2-year-old, in well over a century.
On the human side, John Velazquez has been the most successful jockey at Belmont Park over the last three decades, including multiple jockey titles at all NYRA tracks dating back to the mid-90’s. Twice a winner of both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, he earned his first Triple Crown victory when he rode the filly Rags to Riches to victory in the 2007 edition of the Belmont.
Eddie Arcaro and Jim McLaughlin hold the record for most Belmont Stakes winners for jockeys, each having won six, although McLaughlin’s victories came at the old Jerome Park Racetrack.
Velazquez’s training counterpart is Todd Pletcher, who actually teamed up with the rider to win his first classic, also with Rags to Riches. The three-time winner of the Belmont Stakes has made Belmont Park his home base in a training career which has already earned an unprecedented seven Eclipse Awards as America’s Outstanding Trainer.
The legendary James G. Rowe Sr. holds the all-time record for trainers, with eight winners of the Belmont stakes around the turn of the century, and before that, he actually rode two Belmont Stakes winners in the 1800’s.
Taken to the races at a very young age, Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Professionally, his work has been published on several leading industry sites. Brian served as the Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, where he still writes a regular column and hosts the popular weekly webcast HorseCenter.
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