May 18, 2018
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150 years later, NYRA experts pick the Top 5 Belmont Stakes

by Bob Ehalt

The Belmont Stakes will celebrate a milestone anniversary on June 9 when the 150th renewal of the famed final jewel of the Triple Crown will be contested at Belmont Park.

Whether Kentucky Derby winner Justify will add to the festivities with a Triple Crown bid remains to be seen. Regardless of what happens in Saturday’s Preakness, such a historic edition of the Belmont Stakes brings to mind the many reasons why the mile-and-a-half classic is rightfully known as “The Test of the Champion.”

Since its first running in 1867 at Jerome Park, the Belmont Stakes has been the demanding challenge that has crowned 12 Triple Crown and been a proving ground for a list of champions as long as the racetrack’s stretch while giving life to some of the sport’s most renowned and unforgettable races.

In commemoration of the highly anticipated sesquicentennial edition of one of the sport’s premier races, nine members of the New York Racing Association broadcast team (David Aragona, Larry Collmus, Gabby Gaudet, John Imbriale, Paul Lo Duca, Andy Serling, Anthony Stabile, Greg Wolf and Maggie Wolfendale-Morley) were asked to rank their respective five all-time best runnings of the Belmont Stakes. Beginning today with No. 5 and continuing on May 24 and May 31, we’ll reveal their results of their votes until one race stands tall as the crown jewel in the glorious history of the oldest and most demanding race in the Triple Crown.

Along the way, be sure to check out NYRA personalities’ thoughts on the poll via Twitter and you can also offer your opinion by tweeting to @TheNYRA using the hashtag #Top5Belmonts.

The series starts at number five with a result even tighter than the battle to the wire between Victory Gallop and Real Quiet in the 1998 Belmont Stakes:

No. 5 (Tie) – The 1989 Belmont Stakes, Easy Goer

The 1989 Belmont Stakes will be remembered as a showcase for a rivalry as fierce and exciting as any other in the last 30 years.

There were visions of Affirmed and Alydar in the minds of many of the 64,959 fans who jammed Belmont Park for the 121st Belmont Stakes.

Sunday Silence, the hero of West Coast fans, arrived in New York for legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham seeking a coronation as the 12th Triple Crown champion and first since Affirmed in 1978.

Standing between him and everlasting fame was Easy Goer, the pride of New York and a son of Alydar owned by Ogden Phipps and trained by Shug McGaughey.

The rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer was much akin to the Affirmed-Alydar wars. Easy Goer, from the East, came into the Kentucky Derby as the favorite, just like Alydar. Sunday Silence prepped in California, following Affirmed’s path to Churchill Downs. The race also unfolded like the 1978 Derby with Sunday Silence using his superior early speed to get the jump on Easy Goer and fending off a stretch bid to win by 2 ½ lengths.

In the rematch at the Preakness, it was Easy Goer and jockey Pat Day who took the initiative from the inside and spurted past Sunday Silence on the final turn. Sunday Silence responded by battling back and catching Easy Goer as the two 3-year-olds were virtually inseparable through the stretch run until Sunday Silence prevailed by a fortuitous bob of the nose at the wire.

In order to join the likes of Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the pantheon of Triple Crown winners, Sunday Silence and jockey Pat Valenzuela had to face the formidable challenge of defeating Easy Goer at his home track where he would win six Grade 1 stakes.

Sunday Silence was a 4-5 favorite in the Belmont and broke on top but then tracked in second while longshot European shipper Le Voyageur carved out a 47 second opening half-mile.

It seemed a good set-up for Sunday Silence, but some two lengths behind him, Easy Goer, the 8-5 second choice in an entry with Awe Inspiring, was cruising along, ready to pounce.

At the three-eighths pole, after a mile in a demanding 1:35 4/5, Sunday Silence edged past Le Voyageur, but his lead was short-lived. Relishing the sweeping turns of Belmont Park, Easy Goer moved up outside of Sunday Silence and quickly motored past him leaving the quarter pole and turning into the stretch.

Pulling away with each stride, Easy Goer opened a 4 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole and in the final furlong turned a classic matchup into lopsided mismatch as he crossed the finish line eight lengths ahead of Sunday Silence and was greeted with enthusiastic cheers from a legion of his devoted New York fans.

“A lot of people told me you cost a horse the Triple Crown,” McGaughey said in a 2016 interview, “but that wasn’t why I was in there. That was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to win the Belmont for the horse and Mr. Phipps.  He was a New Yorker and I knew it was something he really wanted.

“It was very reassuring race, a very satisfying one, and a lot of fun. I remember the reaction from the crowd and that really meant a lot to me. It was like this was my turn.”

The final time of 2:26 remains the second-fastest time in the Belmont, trailing only Secretariat’s epic, world-record clocking of 2:24 in 1973 and adding even more glitter to a memorable day when Easy Goer was second to none among the 3-year-olds of 1989 – including his arch-rival Sunday Silence.

No. 5 (tie) – The 2007 Belmont Stakes, Rags to Riches

By 2007, racing fans were accustomed to seeing a filly win the Kentucky Derby. Some watched it happen in 1980 with Genuine Risk and then again in 1988 with Winning Colors.

But the sight of a filly winning the Belmont Stakes? For that you needed a centenarian who was alive back in 1905 when Tanya became the last filly to beat the boys in Belmont Park’s most illustrious race.

Rags to Riches changed that.

In a year when a Triple Crown bid surprisingly ended in the final strides at the Preakness, it was a strapping filly who snapped 102 years of futility for distaff runners by a beating the outstanding colt Curlin, who would ultimately win Horse of the Year titles in back-to-back years and retire as the sport’s all-time leading money earner.

Rags to Riches displayed her quality by winning the Kentucky Oaks by 4 1/4 lengths, but her status for the Belmont Stakes remained uncertain until Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense skipped the final leg of the Triple Crown after squandering a length-and-a-half lead at the eighth pole and finishing second by a head to Curlin in the Preakness.

Following Street Sense’s defection, trainer Todd Pletcher committed to run Rags to Riches and what seemed like a lackluster 139th edition of the Belmont Stakes due to the absence of the Derby winner turned into one of the most famous and inspiring in its proud history.

It was not surprising that Curlin was sent off as a 6-5 favorite, but it opened some eyes that Rags to Riches was the 4-1 second choice over Hard Spun, who was third in the Preakness and second in the Kentucky Derby.

After a stumbling start from the outside post in a field of seven, Rags to Riches raced three-wide around the first turn under jockey John Velazquez and was fifth through slow fractions of 50.14 seconds and 1:15.32.

Passing the three-eighths pole, Rags to Riches and Curlin sped past the tiring leaders CP West and Hard Spun and raced side-by-side for the remainder of the mile-and-a-half test, engaging in a thrilling and spirited battle to the wire that was not decided until the final yards.

The drama and historical significance of the race were captured brilliantly in the words of track announcer Tom Durkin in describing the electrifying stretch duel: “A battle of the sexes in the Belmont Stakes. It is Curlin on the inside, Rags to Riches on the outside. A desperate finish. Rags to Riches and Curlin. They’re coming down to the wire. It’s going to be very close, and it’s going to be … a filly in the Belmont!”

Yes, for the first time since 1905, it was indeed a filly in a heart-stopping renewal of the Belmont Stakes.

“It was certainly the most thrilling race I've been involved in and the most excited I've been watching a race,” said Pletcher earlier this month in the first installment of NYRA.com’s “In Their Own Words” series. “Over the years, people have told me it was one of their most memorable races as well.

“When Rags to Riches finally stuck her head in front, it was excitement, it was jubilation, it was everything you could hope for in a horse race,” added Pletcher, a seven-time Eclipse Award winner who claimed his first Triple Crown win thanks to the filly and now stands as the sport’s all-time leader in earnings. “It was the first classic win for our team. She was the first filly in more than 100 years to win the Belmont, and she did it at our home course.”

While Curlin’s best days were ahead of him, such as victories in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2008 Dubai World Cup, Rags to Riches raced only once more and finished second in the Gazelle Stakes.

In a sense, she didn’t need to tack another gem on to a superlative record of five wins in seven career starts. On that memorable June 9 afternoon in 2007, Rags to Riches left a permanent stamp on the sport by serving as the leading lady in a blockbuster edition of the Belmont Stakes that surely ranks among the best ever.

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