ELMONT, N.Y. — American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, trashing what had been one of the saddest ongoing scripts in sports. A 37-year drought was ended. With Justify now on the cusp of the Crown just three years later, some might have forgotten how hard it is to do. Only 12 horses have completed the quest, while another 20 have come to Belmont attempting to win the Crown and been denied. These are the five toughest Belmont defeats for Triple Crown aspirants:
5. Canonero II, 1971
Nearly 83,000 fans crammed into Belmont Park on June 5, 1971, a record crowd at the time and one that would stand for 28 more years. There was a huge influx of New Yorkers with Latin American heritage there to see a Venezuelan-trained horse who was purchased as a yearling for $1,200 because of a crooked hind leg and what was described as “a crab-like gait.” Canonero II had stunned the racing establishment by rallying from 18th place to win the Kentucky Derby and then won the Preakness on the front end, rocketing from obscurity to celebrity status in a matter of weeks. Anticipation was high for the first Triple Crown since 1946, but the Belmont was too much for Canonero II. After leading throughout, he was passed coming into the stretch by eventual winner Pass Catcher and faded to fourth.
4. Smarty Jones, 2004
In the decades since thoroughbred racing has been pushed out of the American sporting mainstream, few horses have captured the nation’s fancy the way Smarty did. He was flashy and fast and survived a fractured skull at age 2, and he came with endearing human connections – mom-and-pop ownership, a small-time trainer and an obscure jockey. When he became the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, the bandwagon got crowded. When he followed that with a dominant Preakness win, he was arguably the most popular horse in America since the 1970s heyday. Smarty Mania drew more than 120,000 people to Belmont Park, still the largest crowd in the race’s 150-year history, but the Belmont went wrong on two fronts: first, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten ran suicidally fast to challenge Smarty early in the race, refusing to let him settle down (owner Roy “Chappy” Chapman carried a grudge about that to his grave); and then jockey Stewart Elliott started urging Smarty too soon in the 1 ½-mile marathon. Smarty Jones opened up a huge lead and the crowd roared, but the favorite seized up in the stretch and was passed late by 36-1 long shot Birdstone.
3. Spectacular Bid, 1979
Did a safety pin keep Bid from joining racing immortals? Maybe, maybe not. The 2-year-old champion carried plenty of hype into his 3-year-old season, then backed it up by winning five straight races leading into the Kentucky Derby. Bid was made the 3-5 Derby favorite, incredibly low odds, and he lived up to it with an impressive victory. The Preakness was even better, winning in the second-fastest time to Secretariat, and jockey Ronnie Franklin confidently declared his horse “a cinch” for the Triple Crown. But the morning of the Belmont, it was discovered that Spectacular Bid had stepped on a safety pin in the barn and his hoof became infected. However, he didn’t seem to be favoring that leg and was entered in the race. Franklin, a volatile jockey who had gotten into a fistfight with another rider the week of the Belmont, took Bid to the lead early – probably too early. He faltered in the stretch and faded to third. Many still consider him the best horse ever to lose a Triple Crown at the Belmont.
2. Real Quiet, 1998
How’s this for a twist of racing fate: 20 years before trainer Bob Baffert and WinStar Farm CEO Elliott Walden teamed up with Justify, Walden cost Baffert a Triple Crown by a matter of inches. Real Quiet was a $17,000 yearling purchase who hadn’t even been considered the star of Baffert’s barn heading into the Kentucky Derby. But he pulled off a surprising win at 9-1 odds – with Walden’s Victory Gallop running second. They repeated that order of finish in the Preakness two weeks later, but Walden wouldn’t concede the Belmont. Still, it appeared to be a Real Quiet runaway entering the stretch, as he opened up a five-length lead. But as Elliott would do on Smarty Jones six years later, jockey Kent Desormeaux probably moved too soon with Real Quiet – and after assuming the commanding lead, he appeared to relax instead of riding with maximum vigor to the wire. By the time Victory Gallop roared up alongside in the final jumps, it was too late for Desormeaux to reassert Real Quiet. The two hit the wire in unison, and the stewards’ ruling on the photo finish took a small eternity before it was announced that Victory Gallop had won in the final stride.
1. Charismatic, 1999
It’s one thing to lose a Triple Crown. It’s another to lose a Triple Crown and suffer a career-ending injury in the process. That’s what happened to Charismatic, whose rise to fame ended as abruptly as it began. He didn’t win a stakes race until April 18, just two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, then shocked the field at Churchill Downs as a 31-1 long shot. The public still didn’t buy in, making him 8-1 odds in the Preakness, but Charismatic came through again. The horse finally was made the favorite for the Belmont, and in the stretch it looked like he would complete the Triple Crown. But Charismatic slowed down dramatically in the final eighth of a mile and was passed by Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse – then jockey Chris Antley abruptly jumped off the horse’s back after the finish line and held up Charismatic’s left front leg. He had fractured his leg in multiple places late in the race, and Antley’s quick thinking may have saved the horse’s life. It could not save his career, however; surgery was performed the next day and Charismatic never raced again.
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