When they run against each other a half dozen times and the finishes are thrilling each time, or when each accounts for a race against the other in a way that you’ll remember it forever, maybe that’s when there will be a rivalry. Until then, prepare for a Belmont Stakes that might re-unite the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners and that, in itself, is worth something. It'll be the first time for the rubber match since 2005.
Last year’s Belmont Stakes didn’t feature either the Derby or Preakness winner. In the year before, the Derby king Mine That Bird finished third while the Preakness queen Rachel Alexandra remained in her stall. In 2008, Big Brown, running invincibly, supposedly, had his Triple Crown beheaded when Kent Desormeaux pulled the undefeated horse up and out of the race when he saw that his effort was futile.
Only nine winners of one of the first two Triple Crown races or both competed in the third over the term of the last 10 years. Only one Belmont winner since 1995, namely Thunder Gulch, won the Derby. In the last couple decades, half the Belmonts were won by basically once-in-a-lifetime sensations.
As a matter of fact, the Belmont Stakes hasn’t accommodated rivals since 1989 when Easy Goer turned the tables on Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence. The two Hall of Fame horses met on the racetrack only four times. Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer three times. Yet, in two of the races, the margin was less than a neck. In the betting, one was favored and the other was made second choice in all Triple Crown starts, and they finished one-two each time.
In 1978, Easy Goer’s father Alydar had a rivalry with Affirmed that was even more thrilling. The two horses met on 10 occasions, facing off eight times before the Belmont. Heading into Louisville for the Run for the Roses, the count stood at two wins for Alydar and four for Affirmed. The chestnut son of Exclusive Native, under-appreciated by the Eastern establishment, swept the Triple Crown and beat his rival twice more to the finish line, although he surrendered his Travers Stakes prize money because of Laffit Pincay’s boo-boo.
There have been years when circumstances conspired to create rivalries, too. Sham is often considered the rival of Secretariat, but in none of their showdowns was the outcome in doubt. Frank “Pancho” Martin, Sham’s trainer, contributed heat to this comparison, boasting wildly that Sham finished ahead of Secretariat in the Wood Memorial won by Angle Light and that his horse lost two teeth in the gate before the Derby began. But to nought.
East vs. West was the theme behind the fabrication of a Nashua vs. Swaps rivalry in 1955. A “Great Match Race,” held at Chicago’s Washington Park, eventually settled which colt was the better – the Kentucky Derby winner Swaps or the Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Nashua. The race turned out to be not much of a contest, as the East Coast-based Nashua took the lead at the start and, like Seabiscuit beating War Admiral – two other famed rivals, found the finish line first.
In the late 1930s, Seabiscuit and War Admiral developed their followings with feats that kept them apart. Only they, unlike Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, were given the chance to meet. Rivals that never face off often cause the most intrigue. Unresolved issues play into the imagination. We’ll never know now, for example, if Uncle Mo was the better of Premier Pegasus or if Uncle Mo was a flash in the pan.
At this point, neither Animal Kingdom nor Shackleford are candidates for anxious conjecture. In Animal Kingdom, horse racing has an impressive Kentucky Derby winner that achieved his success after the top three-year-olds dropped out. The lightly-raced horse is 50-50 in his half dozen starts, having won only one race of questionable note - the Grade 3 Spiral - before breaking through to the peak of his generation.
Shackleford is a Preakness winner that took advantage of his tactical speediness to hang on in a race that set up poorly for Animal Kingdom. The Dale Romans-trained colt wasn’t able to hold off a lesser adversary - Dialed In - in the Florida Derby, a similar, albeit, slightly longer route. Although the colt’s three-for-seven record’s admirable, the son of Forestry may, if he stays healthy, become Hard Spun.
In the next two weeks, NYRA’s marketing and communications teams will be cranking out tweets and Facebook posts like a teen that’s on summer vacation. They’ll be spinning the face-off as a battle of champions.
This is what you do when you’re dealt a hand that costs you 50,000 fans in the grandstand.
When no Triple Crown’s at stake, Belmont Park’s management is ecstatic to host 60,000 patrons on Belmont Stakes day. Chances are, nonetheless, that the crowd will see some other horse, beside the two being hyped, prove triumphant.