THE BELMONT ’73: THE BIRTH OF A RACING ZEALOT

Mario Gutierrez, jockey for Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll HAve Another, the horse seeking to become the 12th Triple Crown Champion in the history of thoroughbred racing in the June 9th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park tours the Empire State Building's 86th floor observatory and 103rd floor parapet.

Mario Gutierrez, rider of Cirillo’s beloved I’ll Have Another, at the top of the Empire State Building prior to ’12 Belmont.

(American Pharoah’s quest to become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown champ in 37 years, an email from racing and NBA crony Terry Lyons on Sunday, and then iconic racecaller deluxe Dave Johnson’s annual Belmont soiree at Sardi’s last night, gave birth to this reflection).

A teenager stood on a bench near the finish line at Belmont Park with a couple of dozen others in the sardine-packed, then-record crowd, 69,138 strong, that had made their way to the Long Island thoroughbred racetrack on this Saturday in 1973.

I careened my neck as far as it would go to the left, trying to get a glimpse of the soon-to-be immortal Secretariat, as “Big Red” accelerated to the top of the stretch. About to witness history, with one sudden, swift, burst of acceleration, Secretariat was in an instant ahead seemingly by the entire length of the stretch, and stormed to the Triple Crown in the most brilliant performance in the history of the Sport of Kings under jockey Ron Turcotte. Record margin (31 lengths), fastest time in history for 1 ½ miles (2:24). The moment remains frozen in time.

Millions now say they were there. But I was! A lifelong racing fan was born that day; there were certainly countless others.

Joining family friends Joe and Marian Messina, their daughter Lorraine, my parents Carl and Millie, and my sister Claudia, we picnicked together throughout Belmont Day in the “backyard,” enjoying Italian provisions and other culinary treats. Why anyone would voluntarily want to go to this mob scene, I would soon find out. And do it again and again and again. Thank you, Joe. Thank you, Pop.

Gentleman Dave Johnson at his Belmont Sardi's Soiree.

Gentleman Dave Johnson at his Belmont Sardi’s Soiree.

When it was time for Secretariat’s Triple Crown coup de grace, I singularly made my way from the backyard to the front of the Grandstand. Jockeying for position as I weaved through the throng, the then-skinny kid from Brooklyn wedged his way onto the end of a trackside bench. I had found my spot. Everyone was standing as one. No one seemed to mind. It was, after all, a throng.

The rest, as they say, is history. Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’sa mystery, today is present, that’s why they call it a gift.Racing, a gift indeed.

It was back for more when Seattle Slew was crowned in 1977, the year I also covered Slew’s Preakness for Fordham’s WFUV Radio and called the race for Sports Phone: “Seattle Slew has the lead, Iron Constitution tries to come at him, but Seattle Slew bounds home in front and is one step away from immortality”…and again the next year when Affirmed again outdueled archrival Alydar in the sport’s greatest rivalry to take home the crown by a whisker.

Then came the drought – there for most of them! ‎Since Affirmed’s sweep, the third in six years (’73 to ’78), made the task seem easy to observers during that era, 13 horses since then were unable to complete the troika: Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (’81), Alysheba (’87), Sunday Silence (’89), Silver Charm (’97), Real Quiet (’98), Charismatic (’99),  War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (’03), Smarty Jones (’04), Big Brown (’08), I’ll Have Another (2012-didn’t race), and California Chrome last year.

The four-decade dry spell always leaves us wondering: Why is it so hard? Because it’s supposed to be hard!  It is, after all, the “Test of Champions.”

Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski captured baseball’s Triple Crown in 1967, and it took 45 years before Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera could pull off the hat trick in 2012.Racing’s feat is similarly daunting.

Three races in five weeks is grueling on a three-year-old colt, many are still developing, and their races are usually spaced a month to six weeks apart.

Belmont is both a tricky track and surface (‘Big Sandy’ is a very deep, tiring track). Not only is the Belmont a mile and a half, but the track itself is a mile and a half.  More than one jockey has been criticized – fairly or unfairly – for costing their colt the Triple Crown. Most notably Stuart Elliott, the jock atop Smarty Jones, was said to have moved the colt too early; young Ronnie Franklin’s ride aboard Spectacular Bid was called “preposterous” by one critic, and “bizarre riding” by another. Then last year, respected columnist Andy Beyer said Espinosa’s “gross tactical error” cost California Chrome the crown. And on and on…

Then you have the “sports gods” – quite different from our God – they have to be on your side. Essentially, it means that even a great horse also has to have some racing luck.  War Emblem – another who won the first two for the Baffert-Espinosa combo – stumbled at the start in the Belmont and lost all chance. I’ll Have Another was injured and never even got the chance to race for history. Real Quiet missed by a nostril! Likewise Alydar came within a whisker of denying Affirmed.

Johnny Cigar and Fran at Saratoga.

Johnny Cigar and Fran at Saratoga.

Skipping the Preakness now has become commonplace in the past decade or so, whereas “back in the day” the best three-year-olds in the land often raced in all three. So, the Triple Crown champion must stave off fresh challengers, too.

As for Saturday, me thinks American Pharoah will be denied, another failed bid. I do love Baffert, a great trainer; he’s almost done it before, so the horse is definitely poised for the possible breakthrough. But Frosted, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, and the Todd Pletcher-trained Materiality we’re both highly-touted going into the Kentucky Derby. There’s no reason not to believe that either of those three can’t pull off the upset with the rest by skipping the Preakness and training up to the Belmont.

Pletcher has previously conditioned three top Belmont performers that weren’t up to snuff in the Derby: Dunkirk and Stay Thirsty both finished second in outstanding efforts;  and most recently Palace Malice, who I bet at big odds that year ($29.60 win mutual), took home top prize. He also triggered the filly Rags to Riches to a Belmont victory, only the third distaffer in history.

Back to this year’s field, and my pick: Madefromlucky, is another Pletcher pupil, and won the Peter Pan over Belmont, so you know he relishes the surface, and will use the Peter Pan as a springboard, as did Tonalist last year.

From this corner, Pletcher will pull off the upset with a one-two finish to thwart Pharoah’s Triple Crown bid. Prediction: Madefromlucky with Javy; Materiality ridden by Johnny V;Frosted and Rosario; American Pharoah, Tale Of Verve.

EMPIRE CITY VELASQUEZ AND MALUSIS

Jockey Jorge Velasquez, who was unable to thwart Affirmed as rider of Alydar, pictured with WFAN/SNY personality Marc Malusis at Empire City Casino

(More good fortunate from those “racing gods” followed this writer: soon after Secretariat’s rousing win, he also became a harness racing zealot. In 1979, he was hired by Tim Rooney as editor-in-chief and writer for Yonkers and Roosevelt Raceway’s Harness Line program, and in ’81 became public relations director at Yonkers).

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