Saturday, June 5, 2010

June 5, 2004: Just short

ELMONT, N.Y. - The Belmont Stakes has gained a reputation as the toughest of the three Triple Crown races to win. The most obvious reason is its distance, which, at a mile and a half, is often the longest distance any top thoroughbred is ever asked to race. Another reason is the pressure - winning the first two races of the Triple Crown puts a lot of attention on a horse and a trainer, often more than they've ever experienced before. A lot of horses melt under the pressure.

There have been 21 horses who have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but failed to win the Belmont. Ten of those have come since 1978, when Affirmed was the last horse to win the trifecta.

Some of those were taken down by bad luck - Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin before the 1979 race, ruining his chance at history, and Charismatic held the lead in the home stretch of the 1999 Belmont before cracking a bone in his leg in the final furlong and falling back to third. Some just weren't as good as they at first appeared - Alysheba in 1987 and War Emblem in 2002 are examples of this.

For a few others, the length of the final race got to them. Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and Charismatic in 1999 all had the lead in the home stretch and in fact would have been the winners had the race been a mile and a quarter like the Kentucky Derby, but all were caught from behind to lose their shot at history.

In 2004, Smarty Jones was trying to make history of his own. He was undefeated entering the Belmont, including a resounding 11-length victory in the Preakness. While many horses had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones was widely seen as the best contender for the Triple Crown since Spectacular Bid. In the Belmont, he rode out and stayed near the front of the pack, nosing in front a few times, but staying right with the leaders Eddington and Rock Hard Ten.

In the middle of the final turn, Smarty Jones made his move, taking a lead that stretched to as much as four lengths as they headed for the wire. It seemed like the wait was over. His lead was way too big for him to be caught, right?


Watching the race again, it almost seems like Smarty Jones was thrown in reverse in his final strides, or that Birdstone was being pulled along on a treadmill. It didn't seem right that this horse, that had been running smoothly and efficiently all race, had been dominating, could suddenly be caught from behind. But it happened. Smarty Jones finished second, the only loss of his career, and he never raced again.

After the race, the jockeys for Eddington and Rock Hard Ten were accused of colluding to prevent Smarty Jones from winning the race - that is, they were accused of racing not to win, but to specifically set a fast pace and forcing Smarty Jones to get tired. Whether because of collusion, or simply because he wasn't made for the extended distance, Smarty Jones obviously ran out of steam in the final furlong. Instead of joining the list of 11 immortals who won the Triple Crown, he joined the list of the 21 mere mortals who came up just short.

June 5, 1977: PORTLAND, Ore. - It was the perfect season. The combination of a transcendent yet selfless superstar, combined with the perfect complementary role players. For one year, everything was working perfectly. The 1977 Portland Trail Blazers were built around Bill Walton's unique all-around brilliance. A big man who was just as adept at throwing the perfect pass to start the fast break as he was at blocking shots and getting rebounds, Walton lead Portland to victory in the 1977 NBA Finals, clinching a 109-107 victory in game 6 with a mind blowing 23 rebounds and 8 blocked shots. After the win, it looked like there were no heights that Portland and Walton couldn't reach. They continued that promise, starting the next season 50-10. But then Walton broke his foot, effectively ending his superstar days, and Portland never recovered. They're still looking for their second championship.

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