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Horse Articles :: The History of the Belmont Stakes
History of Belmont Stakes
First opened in May 1905, Belmont Park provides American
Thoroughbred horse racing with one of its most spectacular
venues. With the largest dirt course in Thoroughbred racing
- a whopping mile-and-a-half main dirt track - Belmont Park
features, among other things, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Metropolitan
Handicap, and most importantly the Belmont Stakes, the final
race in America's Triple Crown. Most of the great racehorses
of the twentieth century have competed there, including Secretariat,
whose statue graces the park paddock (and whose 31-length
victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes may well be the greatest
feat in the history of horse racing).
It all begins with the Belmont Stakes. Named, most likely,
for August Belmont, Sr. - himself a notable man, not only
the American representative of the famous Rothschild banking
family but also the son-in-law of Commodore Matthew Perry,
the Navy official who in 1854 brokered the opening of Japan
to the West - the great stakes race, financed in part by Belmont,
first ran in 1867. In the early years not Belmont Park (which
wasn't built until 1905) but Jerome Park Racetrack, in the
Bronx, hosted this popular race, the popularity of which helped
to ensure the building of the eponymous Long Island venue,
which was the largest of its kind at that time. (Ironically,
its Nassau County location places it only a few miles from
the site of the 1665 meet that was the first horse race ever
held in North America.)
The victory in that first Park race went to Tanya, a filly.
From that year on the Park has continued to provide the platform
for one unlikely, unheralded, or hard-fought victory after
another: Peter Pan in 1907, the never-defeated Colin in 1908,
Man O'War in 1920, Citation in 1948. Because of its unusually
long distance - one at which most three-year-olds have never
raced - and its placement as the final leg of the Triple Crown,
the Belmont Stakes set the scene for some of horse racing's
greatest triumphs and defeats: consider filly Ruffian's near-victory
in a 1975 "battle-of-the-sexes" match race over Foolish Pleasure,
which ended tragically when several bones in the former horse's
leg snapped (the euthanized horse is now buried in the infield).
Or think of the epic homestretch battle between Affirmed and
Alydar in 1978, which ultimately led to Affirmed's Triple
Crown win. This last and longest of the Triple Crown races
serves up surprises with perhaps a bit more reliability than
the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes - witness Rags to Riches'
stunning 2007 victory, the first by a filly in over a century.
Though it's often been subject to reconstruction during the
storied 105 years of its existence, Belmont Park retains a
few vestiges of the original (now called Old) Belmont Park.
The iron railings that border the horses' walking ring are
relics of the park's original grandstand (they were salvaged
during demolition), as are the four stone pillars displayed
on Hempstead Turnpike (which date to the opening of the South
Carolina Jockey Club in 1792).
The original clubhouse and Turf and Field Club venues were
destroyed during the 1950s, as was the Widener Course, a seven-furlong
straightaway cutting diagonally through the training and main
tracks which had been introduced during Joseph E. Widener's
long tenure as the track's manager.
Aside from its place in the history of racing, Belmont Park
has its place in American pop culture as well. It's inspired
its own drink (the Belmont Breeze), has been featured in movies
and television ("The Odd Couple," Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite,
"Everybody Loves Raymond"), and its own premier stakes race
has been televised yearly since 1960.
A little-known fact about Belmont: during the racing ban of
1910-12, the park made aviation history when the Wright Brothers
chose it as the final venue of the international aerial tournament
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