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Jun 07, 2013

Up the Backstretch: Test of the Champion

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor


(Sports Network) - The Kentucky Derby is the biggest and best known horse race in America and probably the world. However, the Belmont Stakes is known as the "Test of the Champion" as confirmation of its "make or break" status in the sport.

This year, with no Triple Crown on the line, the Belmont will feature for the 21st time a showdown between the winners of each of the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Of the previous 20 showdowns between Derby and Preakness winners, the Derby winner has come out on top five times with the Preakness champ winning nine times.

If either Derby winner Orb or Preakness champ Oxbow successfully conquer the 1 1/2 miles, he will have a lock on the 3-year-old division and make it nearly impossible for another horse to supplant him as champion.

That is why the Belmont Stakes is called the Test of the Champion. Winning the race alone is a test, mix in the ingredients from the previous Triple Crown races and pressure builds, not for the horses, but for the humans involved in the sport.

When a Triple Crown title is on the line, the Belmont Stakes becomes an even more important race than the Kentucky Derby. Twelve times since 1978, a 3-year- old thoroughbred has come into the race with a chance of sweeping the three race series. None has succeeded.

But, when the Belmont Stakes features the two horses that won the Run for the Roses and Preakness, it becomes a meeting of potential champion 3-year-olds.

The biggest obstacle for any of the runners is the unconventional layout of Belmont Park. Unlike most tracks, Belmont Park is 1 1/2 miles in circumference which can cause jockeys to completely misjudge both pace and distance.

"I was involved, and no knock to anybody, but I was involved in one that may have been a little bit of not respecting Belmont Park," Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens noted recently. "And when I say 'respecting Belmont Park', it's like the ocean; you can have a lot of fun in it, but it can hurt you if you don't respect it.

"And I won't say a year or anything, but there's, yes, not as an analyst, I mean, we can look back at Smarty Jones. That was no one's fault other than Smarty Jones being attacked from all sides. And a lot of people knocked Stewart Elliott's ride, and I thought it was a great ride; it was just circumstances that day. But it's a tricky place and you've got to respect Belmont Park."

Stevens comes into the Belmont Stakes off his winning ride aboard Oxbow in last month's Preakness. He goes for his fourth Belmont Stakes win after being in retirement for seven years.

Joel Rosario, jockey for Orb, is based at Belmont Park as he goes for his first Belmont Stakes victory.

"Some jockeys don't ride here on a regular basis, and they might not be as familiar with what's going on," Orb's trainer Shug McGaughey said concerning Belmont Park. "When they turn down that backstretch, they've got a long way to go. A lot of them, I think, will move a little early."

The Belmont Stakes, Test of the Champion, both equine and human.



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