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Carnations, spectators, Essential Quality all in Belmont mixture

By Bob Madison - For the Chronicle | Jun 4, 2021

Horses compete in the “Test of Champions” in the 1995 Belmont Stakes. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Triple Crown racing should bring a certain energy to any of its events. Not so much this year.

The ingredients for bringing back excitement are right there on the manicured sandy surface of the track at Belmont Park. But something is missing.

No thoroughbred won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. There is no Justify in the limited field. No American Pharoah. And certainly no Secretariat.

Who will believe this race will actually be the “Test of Champions?”

After shortening the race to 1 1/8 miles last year, they are going to run at 1 1/2 miles this year. And about 10,000 people will be allowed on the grounds.

White carnations will be draped around the winner’s neck. Owner, trainer and jockey will jump into each other’s arms despite pandemic protocols. The drone of unnecessary infomercials concerning later races this summer at Saratoga and the Breeder’s Cup won’t inspire many people.

Casual fans that attempt to raise their fervor for thoroughbred racing will know more about the famous sires of some of this year’s Belmont entries and won’t be fast-dancing when these horses “come onto the track” to the strains of “New York, New York.” Two of the sires here are Tapit (who commands $230,000 per mating if his progency “stands and nurses” immediately after birth and Curlin, the chestnut titan who is almost as elegant in stature and appearance as the mighty Secretariat. Tapit is now whiter than the driven snow after racing as a gray-colored picture of equine artistry. Curlin has been passing on his race-winning genes and head-turning features for more than a decade.

The modest number of entries should make this a no-excuse race for the expensive entries. Racing luck shouldn’t raise its often-used reasoning for being beaten.

Tapit sired Essential Quality, the beaten favorite — now well rested — from the Kentucky Derby. Curlin is the sire of both Overtook and Known Agenda.

Rombauer attempts to come to New York from the Preakness in Baltimore, Md., where he roasted the field with his stretch run that brought broad smiles to those who bet on his 12-1 odds. Even with his surprise win at Pimlico, Rombauer and his white star on his forehead won’t be the favorite in New York City. His Baltimore jockey was Flavien Prat, but he’ll be ridden by Johnny Velazquez in this Grade 1 stakes. Prat weeks ago accepted a ride on Hot Rod Charlie before it was even known Rombauer would race in the Belmont.

Try as it might, the Belmont always has a hard-to-explain feeling of impending trouble hovering over it. Is trouble just around the corner, barely out of sight, but always just out of reach? It might have something to do with the nauseating death of the fabled Ruffian, who was racing on a humidity-filled July afternoon in 1975 in a two-horse match race against that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Foolish Pleasure. The three-year old filly, Ruffian, was undefeated and had never trailed even for a hoofbeat in any of her races as a two- or three-year old.

Ruffian was the visual equal of even Secretariat, so vibrant was her glistening black coat, statuesque form and royal bearing.

The sultry afternoon in July of 1975 was made nearly unbearable when Ruffian shattered several bones in one leg, but kept on running — doing catastrophic damage to her leg. She was finally stopped and then taken to emergency surgery, attempting to save her life. But upon waking from her induced sleep, she began to thrash about in her stall, completely ripping away the cast and doing even more damage to herself. She was euthanized and racing and its followers mourned over her lost life.

Being held early in June often means there is heat and humidity for the Belmont Stakes. Waiting for a late afternoon start to the Belmont can mean an uncomfortable challenge for those in attendance. And then there is a lengthy wait between the race just before the Belmont and the actual third leg of the Triple Crown. Those with long memories haven’t forgotten the 1975 match race that ended in disaster.

With no Triple Crown possible, interest has faded a little. The “Test of Champions” doesn’t have any champion to test this year.

But the Belmont can say “hallelujah” because a slight turn toward normalcy has been found and about 10,000 fans can scramble off the transit cars on Long Island and into the grounds that can actually accommodate 90,000 patrons.