What to Know About the 153rd Belmont Stakes

As was the case for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, it was a gorgeous day at Belmont Park on Saturday — the sun was shining, the track was fast, and after a year away because of the coronavirus pandemic, the crowd was more joyful than inebriated. It was a trifecta of perfect conditions for the Belmont Stakes, one of horse racing’s most cherished showcases.

Essential Quality, the Derby favorite who could not overcome a bad start, sat out the Preakness in the hopes of a better showing in the Belmont. His connections still believed that he belonged at the top of his 3-year-old class.

Their plan paid off as he outdueled Hot Rod Charlie in the stretch in what essentially became a two-horse race to win by a one-and-a-quarter lengths. He completed the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion in 2:27.11, becoming the fourth horse sired by Tapit to outlast his rivals in the final leg of the Triple Crown. He paid $4.60 on a $2 bet to win. Rombauer, the Preakness winner, finished third.

It was the first Belmont victory for the trainer Brad Cox, 41, who has rapidly risen to the top of the sport, winning the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer last year after saddling four Breeders’ Cup winners and winning 30 graded stakes races.

On Saturday, the joyous atmosphere and a victory by the horse who was supposed to outclass them all in the Run for the Roses almost made it seem as if all was right with the sport. If only that were the case.

“Reckless practices and substance violations that jeopardize the safety of our equine and human athletes or compromise the integrity of our sport are not acceptable and as a company we must take measures to demonstrate that they will not be tolerated,” Bill Carstanjen, chief executive of Churchill Downs, said Wednesday.

This year, the Belmont Stakes returned to its normal mile-and-a-half distance (it was a mile and an eighth last year) and its traditional placement as the final leg of the Triple Crown, befitting its nickname as the Test of the Champion. Still, there were lingering reminders all around of the pandemic.

Only 11,238 fans sprinkled about the racetrack on Long Island, organizers said, although the crowd likely appeared bigger than it was because the Islanders’ new arena, set to open for the 2021-22 N.H.L. season, cut Belmont Park’s famed backyard in half. Gone are the days of overflowing coolers, camping chairs and picnic blankets; now picnic tables are being sold for over $100 a piece. The Belmont’s attendance record of 120,139 was set in 2004, when Birdstone denied Smarty Jones a Triple Crown sweep.

John Dibs of Howard Beach, Queens, was at one of those tables with a group of childhood friends. They all had some sort of connection to Belmont Park — Dibs’s great-grandfather was a blacksmith at New York’s tracks for 50 years — and have been coming to this race and sitting in the backyard for as long as they have been pals.

After grumbling for a bit about losing the pond, the ducks, the trees, the playground and the parking, they all agreed that one alternative — not being allowed to come to the race at all — was much worse.

“To be with family and friends again and sharing the day, to us, it’s almost like you’re going home,” he said.

HavenSOS News