Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 11, 2017

A Belmont Lacking In Buzz

The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the three Triple Crown races, first run at a long-forgotten racetrack in the Bronx in 1867. The inaugural runnings of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes didn’t come until the following decade. Contested every year since, save 1911 and 1912 when anti-gambling laws shut down horse racing in New York, the 149th edition of the Belmont saw a field of eleven load into the gate at Belmont Park on Long Island late Saturday afternoon.

While it is the senior member of the three, because it is also the last on each spring’s Triple Crown calendar, the level of drama at the Belmont is utterly dependent on what happens in Louisville and Baltimore over the five weeks preceding the moment when the horses set foot on the track known as the Big Sandy for the post parade. Some years the Belmont is the opportunity for a horse and jockey to race into the sport’s history books, immortalized for all time as a Triple Crown winner. In those years Belmont Park is filled to overflowing. In 2004 a record crowd of more than 120,000 packed the expansive layout, only to see Smarty Jones, winner of the Derby and Preakness, run down in the deep stretch by the 36-1 longshot Birdstone.

That attendance record would likely have been broken two years ago, when American Pharoah pulled away from Frosted and the rest of the field over the final furlong to end the nearly four decades long Triple Crown drought. But after a crowd of more than 102,000, the third largest ever, dealt with overflowing bathrooms and hours of gridlock trying to leave following the 2014 race the New York Racing Association agreed to cap attendance at 90,000.

Then there are years like this, when there is no Triple Crown at stake because different horses have crossed the wire first at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. The attendance cap is not an issue in such circumstances, and the 2017 Belmont Stakes provided an extreme example of previous events conspiring to drain as much drama as possible from Big Sandy’s day in the sun.

Not only was there no Triple Crown on the line, with the Derby going to Always Dreaming and the Preakness to Cloud Computing, but both of those horse chose to pass on the Belmont. Then on Wednesday the two-year old champion Classic Empire, who ran fourth in the Derby and second in the Preakness and who was certain to be the morning line favorite, withdrew due to a foot abscess. As if to add insult to injury, Saturday morning Epicharis, a rare entry from Japan, was scratched as well.

The role of betting favorite went by default to Irish Way Cry, a New Jersey colt trained by Graham Motion. In four races as a 3-year old the son of Curlin had alternated between outstanding and pedestrian, with wins in the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial offset by a 7th place finish in the Fountain of Youth and a 10th place result in the Run for the Roses. That disappointing showing at the Derby originally led Motion to plan on resting Irish War Cry until the Haskell Invitational in late July. But positive training results and the fact that his horse had been involved in the bumper car start to the Derby that ruined the day for several entrants led the trainer to point for the Belmont instead. Perhaps Motion was also thinking that Irish War Cry’s boom followed by bust racing pattern suggested he was due for a big run.

The announced attendance on Saturday was 57,729, down some four percent from 2016. Between no Triple Crown prospect and the number of leading horses staying away from Long Island, it is a testament to the NYRA’s aggressive marketing campaign that the decline wasn’t steeper. No longer content to let external events totally dictate turnout, in recent years the NYRA has heavily advertised a three-day weekend of racing as the Belmont Stakes Festival, with two graded stakes on Thursday, four more on Friday, and nine on Saturday’s 13-race card, including five other Grade I races in addition to the main event.

Those who did show up were more than enough to fill the long three-level grandstand that runs along the front stretch, as well as the broad apron in front of it. That at least made for good television shots, even if the paddock and expansive picnic areas behind the grandstand weren’t also filled to overflowing. They got to see the 4-year old filly Songbird return to action after a seven-month injury layoff in the Grade I Ogden Phipps. Filly of the Year as both a 2 and 3-year old, Songbird looked as good as ever. She led from the start of the mile and one-sixteenth race. On the far turn Paid Up Subscriber challenged on the inside, and briefly put her nose in front. But jockey Mike Smith asked Songbird to run as the field straightened for home, and she pulled away to win by a length, her twelfth victory in thirteen career starts.

While Songbird won as a prohibitive favorite, the day had its share of upsets as well. In the Grade I Woodward Reserve Manhattan Stakes, the smart money was on Time Test and World Approval. Run at a mile and a quarter on the turf, the Manhattan was the last race before the Belmont, and the fans got to practice their collective roar as Ascend, guided by Jose Ortiz, broke out of a four-wide wall of horses in the final strides to stun the field at 27-1.

The longshot winner was trained by Motion, leaving the crowd to ponder whether that boded well for Irish War Cry in the next race. But Ascend’s jockey Ortiz was riding Tapwrit, the second betting favorite at 5-1 in the Belmont. If the Manhattan result was an augury, it favored the jockey, not the trainer.

Graham Motion had instructed his rider to let Irish War Cry run his own race, and on Saturday the horse chose to go to the lead. He ran ahead of the field all the way around the sweeping turns of the giant oval, setting reasonable fractions along the way. But none of the horses had ever raced a mile and a half before, and in the end the distance seemed too much for the favorite. Ortiz moved Tapwrit up to challenge as they headed into the final furlong. At first it looked like Irish War Cry was going to hold him off. But in the final hundred yards Tapwrit moved to the front as Irish War Cry noticeably slowed. At the wire Tapwrit was two lengths clear, with the one-eyed Patch taking third another six lengths behind.

There have now been six Triple Crown races since American Pharoah made history, and they have produced six different winners. That is a reminder of just how remarkable Pharoah and the eleven other Triple Crown champions truly were. And while Saturday’s race, and those that preceded it on Belmont Park’s card offered plenty of excitement, the crowd that was well short of a sellout and television ratings that were down more than twenty percent from last year were harsh reminders to the racing world that without the potential of history being made, thoroughbred racing remains on the fringe of attention for most sports fans.

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