What can be said of the allure of the Belmont Stakes? Certainly not that it is "The Third Jewel
of the Triple Crown.” That kind of stuff is the province of the network boys and the tabloid tub thumpers who call the World Series “The Fall Classic” and World War II “The Big One.”
We may venture it is “dignified”— compared to the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. By all accounts the Derby is essentially vulgar, which is why it’s so ultimately exciting. The Derby is akin to Emil Jannings chasing Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. The price of true passion is not caring what the tasteful world thinks of your folly.
The Preakness, on the other hand, has a touch of the sinister in it. Baltimore is a dangerous place to visit. After all, it’s the town that produced Spiro Agnew, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (who had school prayers banned by the Supreme Court) and H. L. Mencken. You can get mugged in such a place by locals, as did Ridan by Greek Money and Riva Ridge by Bee Bee Bee, two undistinguished long shots who, after their moment of homebred pessimism, returned to the obscurity they so richly deserved. The truth is Baltimore is famous not for its crab cakes but for its curmudgeons.
The Belmont is a scene apart. Sedate and stately, impeccably bred horses going the gruelling distance of a mile and a half. It is a race that highlights character and steadfastness. It does little for the heart. Its purpose is to reinforce marrow. It does not move the lips to a passionate pucker but stiffens the upper. By winning it, one gets the same smug satisfaction one gets from having read all of Proust or reaching a silver wedding anniversary with your fidelity intact.
Of course there have been memorable Belmonts when the Triple Crown has been on the line. Last year’s pas de deux between Affirmed and Alydar was an exhilarating piece of racing that ranks at the top in American turf annals. The two thoroughbreds hounded each other heads apart for a mile, like a loan shark and his client. And then there was Secretariat’s 1973 race when he won the first Triple Crown since Citation’s 25 years before. The majestic red won by 31 lengths, shattering a track record. It was less a race than an experience—a monarch in lusty appetite—comparable to watching Henry VIII sup.
This year was devoid of spectacle or assault on history. Not only did Spectacular Bid’s credentials dwarf his opposition’s, the Triple Crown, after being unreachable for a quarter of a century, was becoming commonplace.
After Secretariat in 1973, the feat was duplicated by Seattle Slew in ’77 and Affirmed in ’78. Now Bid was 1 to 10 to do it in 1979 for an unprecedented third consecutive year. It was like watching the Easter parade—the glut of riches was becoming boring. The racing world began to root for an unheralded interloper to disrupt the proceedings.
There was a slight hope. In New York, there was a colt named Czaravich who passed up the Derby and the Preakness to await the Belmont. He is a huge, rangy green colt full of promise and distance seemed to be his game. He was sired by the great European distance champ Nijinski, who was sired by E. P. Taylor’s Northern Dancer who failed for his bid at the Triple in the 1964 Belmont. Czaravich was trained by the marvelous distance trainer Billy Turner, who handled Seattle Slew and
was cavalierly cast aside by that colt’s owners after he annexed the Triple. So revenge for Turner and Northern Dancer spiced the predictable calm.
But a coughing epidemic hit the barns at Belmont and Czaravich was infected and had to break training. Another lightly raced colt, Coastal, won the Peter Pan Stakes (a Belmont prep) by 13 lengths in stake record time. He was by Majestic Prince who failed in his bid at the Triple in 1969. Again there was a murmur of upset. Chaos springs eternal.
But all this was reaching. No one truly believed the Bid could be brought down. So the talk centred around the reason, or reasons, for the sudden proliferation of Triple Crown winners. Theories abounded: modern horses like modern athletes, through better nutrition, training methods and medical care, were superior to their ancestors. Jet travel removed the arduous vanning of horses from track to track. And then there was the standardization of American racetracks, all favoring speed horses. Indeed, Forego was the last American horse of quality who ran from behind and indeed, American tracks have become as indistinguishable as their fast food. The Yankee dis-
taste for foreplay had infected racing.
Then there was the influence of the Bold Ruler strain in breeding which started when the Americans cajoled Bold Ruler’s sire, Nasrullah, away from the Irish breeding industry. Celtic history once again prevailed—their talented sons emigrated.
But migration is a two-way streak, as Leon Rasmussen points out. Rasmussen writes the bloodlines column for The Daily Racing Form. He is the Alex Haley of the equine set. His intriguing notion is that maybe the best horses are not winning the American classics. As far as Spectacular Bid is concerned, his sire impresses Rasmussen but his dam is common lot: “Even Affirmed’s sire, Exclusive Native, was a miler, not a true distance horse, as was the sire of Seattle Slew. In America, we breed milers and hope for a mile and a quar-
ter.” Rasmussen adds that America’s truly regally bred colts are all being bought by Europeans and are racing on the continent. He states that the premiere two-year-olds’ race in England, the William Hill Futurity, has been won by American-breds from 1972 through 1977. And the Arc de triomphe, the “world race,” was won by Americanbreds six times in the past eight runnings. Also, Alleged, Europe’s horse of the year for two years, was by Hoist the Flag, who was odds on to win the 1971 Triple Crown—until he shattered his leg. “If these horses raced on native soil we might have had a different cast of heroes over the last eight years,” Rasmussen says. According to this eighth pole pundit, America’s deficit balance of payment is now on the hoof.
Amidst all this cerebral meandering there was a physical footnote. Ronnie
Franklin, Bid’s jockey, and Angel Cordero, who rode Screen King in the Derby and the Preakness (and the rider of General Assembly in the Belmont), have had an ongoing feud. In Florida, earlier in the year, Cordero shook up Franklin and Bid in the Florida Derby. Franklin called Cordero “a spic.” Baltimore doesn’t produce diplomats either.
In the Preakness, Cordero carried Franklin and Bid wide in a legal tactical move. Franklin demeaned Cordero for “poor sportsmanship” on national TV. The Wednesday before the Belmont, Cordero countered. Both were riding in the fourth race. Cordero came over on Franklin, nearly bringing Franklin’s mount to his knees.
Later in the jockeys’ room, punches were thrown and both jocks were fined $250 with a stern warning about roughhousing on Belmont day. The press
made much of that altercation. But fighting among jockeys is only taken seriously by people who get excited by dolphins speaking. The discerning know a superior breed does it better.
Rumor had it Cordero threatened to kill Franklin. It’s an old ploy. The only way to get drama into an inevitable coronation is to threaten assassination.
When Ronnie Franklin woke up on Belmont day, he received two disastrous pieces of news. The first was that David Whiteley, trainer of Coastal, had agreed to have his horse supplemented to the race for $15,000. Whiteley, like his father, Frank, who trained Damascus, Ruffian and Forego, is not a flamboyant man. The family believes in wearing a belt with suspenders. The other shoe that fell was that young Franklin got slapped by a paternity suit brought against him by a Baltimore
damsel. The symbolists began looking for the traditional tri-part tragedy.
At 5:39 on a day so muggy it would make a coal-miner gag, the last macabre visitation took place. Bid broke cleanly in the second position, dogging the pace-setting Gallant Best, an 80-to1 shot. Inexplicably, Franklin pursued Best as if he were a contender wresting the lead from him after six furlongs. Nothing shocking though — the pace was a civil 1:11 1/5.
The only shock was that when Bid made the lead, he didn’t accelerate. After a mile, he only had a two-length lead. Four horses were still in touch with him. With a quarter of a mile to go, Bid was ahead by three lengths but Coastal and Golden Act were beginning to move. Bid started to bear out like a tired horse, and Franklin compounded that by whipping left-handed, sending
him further out. Ruben Hernandez seized the opportunity and drove Coastal through on the rail. Bid shortened stride and Coastal blew by him to go on to win by SV2 lengths, with the late-closing Golden Act necking Bid for second.
There was no logical excuse for Bid except that, like his jockey, he had an off day. The time was a pedestrian 2:28 3/5 — 23 lengths off Secretariat’s record. Bid had never run that far off a record in his career. Indeed, usually he is skirting with sparkling time.
In the jocks’ room, Franklin was despondent while Cordero exulted in the Latin Hernandez’s upset, shouting: “Ruben, every spic in America loves you!” What Franklin muttered upon exiting wasn’t recorded for posterity, but it sure as hell wasn’t “I love New York.”^
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