Last Stop, Belmont Stakes

The Belmont Stakes; the end of the Triple Crown journey; the one race, as fickle and unsympathetic as any in the country, that has the power to grant or deny a horse immortality on the slightest whim. It has the patience to wait 25 years or 37 years for a Triple Crown winner or it can get restless and crown three in a six-year period. It is an enigmatic race that knows no rules. Every Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who attempts to conquer the mile and a half of Big Sandy is perceived as a legend waiting to be crowned, but in nearly four decades, all but one have run smack into Belmont Stakes’ many pitfalls, one more cruel and unforgiving than the next.

I have been there to witness the highs and the lows, from my first crown denied in 1969 when Arts and Letters dashed the hopes of the unbeaten Majestic Prince to the coronation of American Pharoah after 37 years, and all the triumphs and mostly failures in between. The former actually was a triumph to me, as Arts and Letters was one of my first favorite horses and he still has a special place in my heart.

I remember staying up all night listening to talk radio because I couldn’t get to sleep, in anticipation of going to Belmont the following morning with my father to see Arts and Letters, and then later with my friend Fred. I also remember Belmont day, sitting in the last section of the grandstand, overlooking the quarter pole, and when I saw Braulio Baeza look back over his shoulder right beneath me I knew Arts and Letters was home free. Later that year, my world would change forever when I was hired by the Morning Telegraph (the Eastern and main edition of Daily Racing Form) as a copy boy.

Although I was not covering the Belmont Stakes in the 1970s, I felt the electricity ripple through Belmont in 1973 following Secretariat’s other worldly performance that still exists out in the galaxy somewhere and has yet to return to Earth. I remember having my friend Jack drive me to JFK Airport immediately following Seattle Slew’s Belmont victory to catch a plane for England to attend the Royal Ascot races and the Irish Derby. In many ways I am embarrassed to say that I was in England again the following year when Affirmed beat Alydar, having made my plans many months in advance in order to be at the English Derby and Royal Ascot. I was enamored with European racing back then.

But this is about my Belmont Stakes memories covering the race, and there are plenty of those.

During my early days covering the Belmont on a freelance basis for the Thoroughbred Times, I remember being at Alysheba’s barn following his disappointing fourth-place finish, in which he was trounced by his arch rival Bet Twice. By doing so, he not only lost out on the first $5 million bonus being offered to any horse who swept the Triple Crown, he also lost the $1 million bonus for accumulating the most points in all three races when Gulch just got up to nip him on the wire for third, allowing Bet Twice to win the bonus.

Alysheba’s jockey, Chris McCarron, knew it was not one of his finest moments and that his ride likely cost the owners, Clarence, Dorothy, and Pamela Scharbauer the bonus money and Van Berg his 10 percent share of a million dollars. After the race, McCarron drove up to the barn and sheepishly walked toward Van Berg, not knowing what to expect.

“There’s my boy,” Van Berg said in a warm, welcoming manner. All McCarron could say was, “Am I still your boy?” Van Berg went over and put his arm around McCarron’s shoulder as if to reassure him all was fine. I will never forget that moment, because it showed how classy someone can be even after having just lost $100,000 by several inches.

The following year, the morning before the Belmont Stakes, Risen Star, who was stabled in the stakes barn complex, went out for a three-furlong blowout and shocked everyone by working in :33 2/5, give or take a fifth, with former jockey Jimmy Nicholls standing straight up in the saddle, pulling hard on the reins, trying to slow him down. Risen Star had been having foot issues following his Preakness victory and that entire morning following the work he had his foot in ice, as he did Belmont morning. Several hours later a rumor began to circulate in the press box that Risen Star was going to be scratched. We waited and waited and the announcement never came. Risen Star went out and won by nearly 15 lengths, running the second-fastest Belmont ever behind Secretariat. He never raced again.

In 1989, Sunday Silence was trying for a Triple Crown sweep, having beaten Easy Goer in the Derby and Preakness. The strain of the Triple Crown was starting to wear on trainer Charlie Whittingham, who not only was losing his patience with visitors and questions from the press, he also was losing his battle with Sunday Silence, who was making a habit of sending his trainer to the first aid room. During his stay at Belmont, Sunday Silence managed to bite Whittingham on the leg, bite him on the finger, and kick him in the head. That last incident occurred when the colt became spooked by a camera crew waiting for him at the entrance to the track leading from the paddock.

As Sunday Silence emerged from the tunnel, with Whittingham walking alongside, he spotted the cameras and reared up. As he came down, he clipped his trainer on the head. Exercise rider Pam Mabes looked back to see if he was OK and asked what to do, and Whittingham, holding his head in apparent discomfort, waved to her to continue on to the track and go about her business as usual.

His final trip to the first aid room, where he had become a regular visitor, resulted only in an application of iodine, which left a large rust-colored stain on Whittingham’s bald head. All he would say of the incident was “I zigged when I should have zagged.”

Easy Goer trounced Sunday Silence in the Belmont and I vividly remember standing next to him back at the barn as he grazed, his golden chestnut coat illuminated by the setting sun. The only two people there were me and Thoroughbred Times editor Mark Simon. It was one of those special tranquil moments you always remember.

Whittingham was involved in another strange incident in 1994 when he ran Kentucky Derby runner-up Strodes Creek in the Belmont Stakes. One morning, early in Belmont week, Whittingham sent Strodes Creek out for a gallop with exercise rider Sonia Simmons aboard. I was standing with him on the track in from of the “Barbecue Pit,” a fenced in area near the gap where trainers would hang out. Just then, someone from the Barbecue Pit said, “One of the riders just got off their horse.” No one could see who it was.

“I hope it’s not mine,” Whittingham said, half in jest. I looked through my binoculars and sure enough there was Sonia Simmons standing next to Strodes Creek, who looked to be in apparent distress, lowering his head and shoulder and pawing at the ground.

One of the trainers in the pit, Rusty Arnold, called me over. “Hey, Steve, is that Charlie’s horse?” he asked. I told him it was but I was too chicken to tell him. I couldn’t bring myself to break the news to the great Charlie Whittingham that his Belmont horse was being loaded in an ambulance.

Arnold then did the dirty deed, telling Whittingham it was his horse. I walked back to the barn with him, and he said little, not knowing the extent of the injury. “We’ll just have to see how bad it is,” he said, while in a brisk walk. When we arrived at the barn, Randy Winick, trainer of one of the Belmont favorites, Brocco, was sitting on a tack box as the ambulance pulled up to the barn, stunned at the turn of events. Just then, the back door of the ambulance opened, the ramp was lowered, and there was Strodes Creek prancing off the van perfectly sound. The horse was checked over by a veterinarian, who took X-rays. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the horse. The vet theorized that Strodes Creek’s one undescended testicle was causing him discomfort.

Ironically, it was Brocco who stepped on a stone a few days later, suffering a bruise that would keep him out of the Belmont, while Strodes Creek would finish third, becoming the only horse in Belmont history to finish in the money less than a week after being taken off the track in an ambulance.

One of the most gut-wrenching Belmonts was Charismatic’s attempt to sweep the Triple Crown in 1999.

The morning of the Belmont, jockey Chris Antley showed up at trainer Wayne Lukas’ barn at 5:15, very unusual for a jockey on race day. Then, as the sun was beginning to peak through the trees, Antley couldn’t help but break into a smile, as he beamed with confidence.

“What a beautiful day,” he said. “I bet you see the largest crowd ever.”

He took a long, hard look at Charismatic, who was out grazing, and said, while thinking about his dark days battling drug addiction and being away from racing, “I look around and I want to take a deep sigh. I remember not too long ago getting up on a morning just like this in South Carolina, taking off running, wondering if I’ll ever make it back. It was like it was just yesterday. Whew, you talk about extremes. One thing about heaven and hell, I’ve been to both of them. If I was attempting to get the ultimate feeling inside, this would be it. This would be heaven.”

But that afternoon would be the beginning of Antley’s return to hell.

As Charismatic drove to the wire through the wall of noise created by the 85,818 fans in attendance, he took a bad step. Shortly after crossing the finish line in third, Antley pulled him up and jumped off. He fell backwards on the seat of his pants, then scrambled to his knees and ran his hand up and down the colt’s left foreleg. Because horses have a very high pain tolerance and normally go into shock after a catastrophic injury, Antley gently lifted the injured leg off the ground to prevent him from putting weight on it and held it until help arrived.

Charismatic had suffered a condylar fracture of the cannon bone and a vertical fracture of the lateral sesamoid. As the scene was being played out, it was as if the life had been sucked out of the once jubilant crowd. Charismatic was led into the ambulance where he was treated with the anti-inflammatory drugs Butazolidan and Banamine and a mild sedative. He was returned to his stall and walked in calmly, then immediately went to his feed tub and nibbled on a few leftover oats. Lukas’ wife, Laura, fed him hay from his hay rack. Equipped with a ski boot brace, he peered over his webbing, nodding his head continuously.

Owners Bob and Beverly Lewis and their family arrived at the barn and were assured by Lukas the colt was doing as well as could be expected. When Antley showed up, Bob Lewis patted him on the shoulder and said, “Chris, good job of stopping him.”

Lewis began to well up with tears and told Antley, “After watching the film and seeing how you went down and tried to assist the horse and hold him up was just magnificent on your part, and I can’t begin to tell you how proud we are to have you in our association.”

Lewis couldn’t contain his tears any longer. He said to the normally emotional Antley, “You’re supposed to be the one with the tears, not me.” But Antley appeared to be more in shock than anything.

Antley never could shake free from his demons. A year and a half later, he was found dead on the floor of his Pasadena, California, home. The cause of death was a severe blunt force trauma and was investigated by police as a homicide. Later, the coroner’s report concluded that Antley had died of a multiple drug overdose, and the injuries were likely related to a fall caused by the drugs. But few people believed that. Whether Antley was murdered or not, it was a tragic end for someone so gifted and talented, who likely never again had a moment as beautiful as that Belmont morning.

Two of my most special Belmont Stakes moments were flying from Louisville to New York with Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch, Preakness winner Timber Country, and future Hall of Famer Serena’s Song in 1995 and then again in 1997 with Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm. Thunder Gulch, of course, would go on to win the Belmont, while Timber Country was a late scratch after getting sick.

For Silver Charm, I left Belmont in the late afternoon and flew to Louisville with New York Post writer David Grening, where we watched Silver Charm’s final work before flying with him back to Belmont the following morning.

After 10 days of being treated like a king by an adoring community, trainer Bob Baffert now found himself face to face with reality as he approached the Tex Sutton Boeing 727 that would take him and Silver Charm to their final battle in their quest for racing’s Triple Crown.

Baffert said he felt like the weight of Kentucky was on his shoulders, especially after seeing the huge turnout for the previous morning’s work. “I’m looking forward to getting up to New York and getting this thing done and coming back to Kentucky wearing the Triple Crown on my head,” he said.

The plane touched down at JFK Airport at 8:50 a.m. after the hour and 45-minute flight. Silver Charm was led on the van, and with a police escort leading the way, the van meandered through the streets of Queens into Long Island, as pedestrians quizzically watched the procession.

As the van pulled up near Barn 9 at Belmont, a mass of humanity could be seen gathered in front of the barn. It was the largest assemblage of reporters, photographers, and cameramen I had ever witnessed. They surrounded Silver Charm as he walked from the van to the barn, and before long, Baffert was engulfed by the media. Kentucky was already a memory. There was a Triple Crown to be won. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, as Silver Charm was narrowly defeated by Touch Gold. Baffert was back the following year for another crack at the elusive Triple Crown with Real Quiet, and the four years later with War Emblem, but they also would end in defeat. Thirteen years later, in 2015, it would be a different story.

I remember watching the 1998 Belmont standing right behind Real Quiet’s owner Mike Pegram’s box. Talk about agony, having to stand there for what seemed like an eternity watching Pegram await the photo finish result was surreal, knowing he was going to win or lose the Triple Crown by an inch.

Of all the Belmonts and Triple Crown attempts I’ve witnessed, none was more exciting than the three weeks leading up to the 2004 Belmont Stakes, where one of the great Cinderella horses of all time, Smarty Jones, would attempt to add his name to the list of Triple Crown winners.

Smarty Jones was based at Philadelphia Park, which became the center of the racing universe, and was only a 40-minute drive from my house.

This was a horse who drew nearly 10,000 people of all ages to Philly Park the Saturday after the Preakness just to watch him gallop, some arriving as early as 5 a.m. and then charging to the rail to get a good spot, many with their children on their shoulders.

One day, DRF photographer Mike Marten and I went to Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, where Smarty’s trainer John Servis was throwing out the first pitch, and Mike had obtained credentials. So, here I was standing on the field warming up Servis, who stood on the steps of the dugout, as we threw the ball back and forth.

The morning Smarty vanned to Belmont was a scene that transcended anything Thoroughbred racing has ever seen. At 9:30, with three helicopters disrupting the morning silence, two motorcycle police officers arrived, ready to escort Smarty on the first leg of his journey. Officer John Gladu removed his helmet, put on a Smarty Jones hat, then took out his camera and began taking pictures of the horse standing in a grassy paddock adjacent to the loading ramp. “Hey, I’m just a fan,” he said.

The other officer, Tim Henehan, thought he had seen it all when, six months earlier, he had escorted President Bush. But he had never seen anything like this, escorting a horse. “You have a job to do and you take it seriously no matter who you’re escorting,” he said.

At 9:30 they were off. I was driving Mike’s rented SUV, while he rode shotgun taking photos. With Gladu and Henehan leading the way, we followed the van out the stable gate, as people all along neighboring Galloway Road stood in front of their homes photographing and videotaping the van as it went by. Others just gave a double thumbs up, several shouting, “Go get ‘em, Smarty.” Two Bensalem police cars blocked traffic on busy Street Road, while an unmarked police car tucked in behind the van. At the tollbooth for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, all the toll takers gathered outside the booths, applauding and cheering for Smarty Jones as he moved through. Shortly after getting on the turnpike, the van passed a billboard that read, “Look out New York, Smarty’s Coming!” People even gathered on a grassy hill behind a turnpike rest area just to watch Smarty go by. After leaving Pennsylvania, the van was picked up by New Jersey state troopers, who eventually turned it over to the New York police for the final leg of the trip.

Everything was going smoothly. All Mike wanted now was to get a shot of Smarty coming off the van. Several miles from the George Washington Bridge, our SUV began slowing down. I looked down and couldn’t believe it; we had run out of gas. We were in the left lane and I had to make my way over about four lanes going two miles an hour, hoping I could make it to the side of the road, as drivers shouted obscenities. I finally got over to the shoulder and was about to call Triple AAA when Mike, unwilling to wait and miss his shot, went running up a nearby entrance ramp. He returned a few minutes later with a construction worker, who he had paid $100 for few gallons of gas. He told us he doubted we had enough gas to get to Belmont, but Mike got behind the wheel and drove about 80 miles an hour, taking a shorter route. We pulled up to the barn just as Smarty was about to unload. Mike dashed out of the car and got his shot. Piece a cake.

One of the most touching moments and one of the greatest exhibitions of sportsmanship I ever saw occurred after Birdstone denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown in as crushing  a defeat and unpopular a result as anyone ever witnessed in the Belmont Stakes.

In the stands, people were crying. Even Marylou Whitney, who owned Birdstone, was near tears, not for her victory, but for depriving Smarty his chance at immortality and for what a victory would have done for the sport. “I feel so awful for Smarty Jones,” she said in all sincerity. “We were hoping we’d be second. I love Smarty. He’s done more for racing than anyone I’ve ever known.” Even trainer Nick Zito went over to John Servis and apologized.

Birdstone’s biggest supporter, assistant trainer Reynaldo Abreu, who called the colt “Little Man,” was bawling after the race, tears streaming down his face. Here he was leading Birdstone, all 900 pounds of him, back to the test barn in front of a stunned and deflated crowd, too drained to pay any attention. Still shaking, Abreu said to the Belmont winner, “You deserve this, little one, you deserve it.” He then gave the colt a big slap on the rump. “They said you were too little, but they didn't know how big your heart is.”

Just as Abreu was about to lead Birdstone into the tunnel to return to the backstretch, he was instructed by the outrider to walk back along the track to a backstretch gate near the clubhouse turn. When he arrived, however, the gate was locked, with the locks held together by plastic cords. Abreu went from feelings of ecstasy to anger as he found himself stranded with a horse that needed water and to relax after his grueling trip.

Fortunately, he had a pair of scissors in his pocket and was able cut through the plastic. But his problems were far from over. By now, cars were piling out of the track, and as Abreu, Birdstone, and several others from Zito’s crew tried to make their way through the traffic, a stretch limo nearly ran into Birdstone. A number of patrons helped stop traffic while an incensed Abreu finally was able to lead Birdstone to the test barn.

The demise of the Triple Crown bonus resulted from a not-so-pleasant scene after the 1993 Belmont. There in the winner’s circle on a bleak, wet afternoon was Sea Hero’s owner Paul Mellon accepting the $1 million check, even though his horse had finished up the track, while the favorite, Preakness winner and Derby runner-up Prairie Bayou, was still on the backstretch being loaded onto an ambulance after suffering what would be a fatal injury.

What would ensue back at Prairie Bayou’s barn after the race and the next morning is what made this job so difficult at times. That night, Prairie Bayou’s groom and “best friend,” Carl Brewer, still in shock and in tears, stared into the horse’s empty stall, unable to come to terms with what had happened.

“You never truly realize how close you become to a horse, or a dog, or a friend until they’re gone,” he said. “Here was a horse who was honest, dependable, and so gentle. In the morning he was always so excited and went to the track with such enthusiasm. He was just a hard-trying, blue-collar horse who made everyone around him feel good.”

The morning after the race, Brewer was still visibly shaken, unable to eat dinner the night before. He walked over and gently stroked the forehead of an unraced Northern Baby 2-year-old and then went over and gave his filly, Aztec Hill, a pat on the neck.

“Whew! I didn’t expect that,” he said, taking a deep breath. He then looked at a hand-painted sign hanging outside Prairie Bayou’s empty stall that read: “Prairie Bayou: 1993 Preakness winner.”

“I’ve got to get rid of that sign,” he said. “It hurts just to look at it.”

Prairie Bayou, one of the kindest, most giving horses I’ve ever been around, is buried at Dr. Gary Lavin’s Longfield Farm in Goshen, Ky., where he was born and raised.

Covering racing, especially the Triple Crown, you never know who and what you’re going to encounter. One of the strangest encounters ever was in 2002 when a woman named Dawn Hayman, who claimed to be an “animal communicator,” went around looking to have “a conversation” with a Belmont Stakes starter. None of the trainers were interested, except for Kenny McPeek, who was still in Kentucky, and assistant Hanne Jorgensen, who had the hopeless outsider Sarava in the Belmont, where he would go off at odds of 70-1.

“OK, we’ll give it a shot,” McPeek told Jorgensen. What did he have to lose? What really got his and Jorgensen’s attention was when Hayman, after “talking” to Sarava, said that the horse told her he missed the man back in Kentucky who would give him things out of his pocket every night. Jorgensen called the barn and had someone check with the nightwatchman, who said he always kept mints in his pocket and would feed them to Sarava every night, something no one else was aware of.

When Hayman asked Sarava if he was feeling alright, he told her, “I used to have a lot of pain on the inside of my right front foot, but it’s fine now. The only thing that’s bothering me now are my heels, especially on the right side.” Jorgensen said that Sarava used to have a severe quarter crack on the inside of his right front foot, and now he had a slightly cracked heel on the right foot that would get sore on occasion.

Jorgensen was astounded, because she knew the woman had no way of knowing about any of this, especially pinpointing exactly where everything was located. Hayman finally said that Sarava told her he would go through any hole if the rider asked him. He concluded by assuring her he was a good horse and was going to show the world on Saturday. Sarava did go through a hole and out-battled Medaglia d’Oro to the wire in one of the great shockers in Belmont and Triple Crown history. And Sarava knew it all along. Hey, I’m just telling it like it happened.

In 1992, Neil Drysdale had A.P. Indy in the Belmont Stakes. Having had his quarter-crack that kept him out of the Derby patched and coming off a stunning victory in the Peter Pan Stakes, A.P. Indy was without question the star of this year’s Belmont. On the morning, A.P. Indy was scheduled to work, it had poured overnight and turned Belmont Park into a quagmire.

Very few horses dared to train over the track. Not knowing what Drysdale was going to do, I went to stakes barn early that morning to ask him what his plans were. There was only one problem. There was no sign of Drysdale or A.P, Indy. I checked to see if the horse was behind the barn grazing – nothing. I checked the track – nothing. Finally, I found the horse’s groom back at the barn and asked him where Neil was. “He’s at Aqueduct,” he said.

Drysdale, on a hunch, had driven to Aqueduct at the crack of dawn before the mad Belt Parkway rush hour, just to see if it had rained as hard there and how the track was. Sure enough it had hardly rained there and the track was listed as fast. So Drysdale returned to Belmont, put A.P. Indy on a van, and brought him to Aqueduct to work.

I got in my car and tried to catch the work, but ran into the daily mess that is the Belt Parkway. I finally arrived at the Aqueduct stable gate, hurried to the barn where the horse was stabled, and as I dashed to the track, there was A.P. Indy and Drysdale walking off. While all the other Belmont starters scheduled to work that day remained in their barn, A.P. Indy got in his important six-furlong work and went on to win the Belmont.

I’m going to miss our annual dinners at Baci Café with my old buddies from the Racing Form. We didn’t miss a dinner in 23 years. And there were the delicatessen orgies in the third-floor clubhouse the day before the Belmont, with Lenny Shulman’s friend Hot Tub Johnny picking up dozens of corned beef and pastrami sandwiches and knishes, potato pancakes, and many other deli goodies. Each year, it got bigger and bigger, with more people showing up, and there was the one year when we invited Paul Reddam and he showed up even though he had just announced that morning before a mob scene of journalists that I’ll Have Another had been scratched from the Belmont with an injury.

Lenny and I have had some memorable moments at the Belmont Stakes, but none more special than hugging each other and jumping up and down like little kids after American Pharoah’s historic victory last year, as the grandstand literally shook around us. No offense to my wife, but that was the hardest anyone has ever hugged me. What a fitting final memory of the Belmont, and then staying at the barn until after 10:30 that night with Bob Baffert’s family and friends, as American Pharoah seemed to be relishing the moment by posing for hundreds of photos.

These are just some of my Belmont Stakes memories. The Triple Crown trilogy is completed; flashbacks of a life on the racetrack to be savored and cherished. The people, the horses, the great races come and go, but they leave indelible images. I no longer will be part of the fabric of the Triple Crown as I knew it for almost 40 years. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy it any less or write about it with any less passion and fervor.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.”

It’s been fun unlocking mine.

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