Archive for May, 2012

The track where the 2012 Belmont Stakes will be run is affectionately known as “Big Sandy,” and since the opening of Belmont Park, Big Sandy has been making horse racing history. History can be dry at times, but Belmont Park — as you are about to see — is a site where it comes alive. 


1905, the Opening Day of Belmont Park. In the featured race, The Metropolitan, James R. Keene’s undefeated colt would take on all comers.

Belmont grandstand and track.  (1905)

August Belmont II and William Collins Whitney led a group of prominent investors who built the original Belmont Park. For the first 15 years,  all races were run clockwise as was the case in the United Kingdom, a source of bloodstock patronized by prominent American and Canadian owners-breeders. The clockwise direction also resulted in the finish line being directly in front of the clubhouse, where racing nobility would be seated.

August Belmont II was an avid racing patron and breeder; he is also remembered for being the breeder of the legendary Man O’ War. The Whitneys were another of the founding families of American racing who, like the Belmonts, James Robert Keene and the Alexanders nurtured the sport from its inception to the present. Without their diligence, commitment and enthusiasm, there would have been little chance for the Sport of Kings to flourish “across the pond.”

August Belmont II (hand on hip) with Paul Cravath.

James Robert Keene, circa 1875, a brilliant owner-breeder who had a vision for the sport and a gift for finding and breeding blue-bloods.

William Collins Whitney, the founder of an American dynasty, represented today most vividly by the grand Lady of Racing, Mary Lou Whitney.

When the Belmont track opened on May 4, 1905, it was the running of The Metropolitan that provided the buzz, since the race would feature James R. Keene’s undefeated colt, Sysonby. The innovation of a Long Island Railroad extension from the Queens Village Station, making it possible for fans of more modest means to attend on opening day, made the trip to Belmont Park easy and affordable.

Racing fans arriving at the old Belmont Park in the early part of the century.

The Metropolitan, or “Met Mile” as it came to be known, was the featured race at Belmont on May 4, 1905. The expectation was that James R. Keene’s brilliant colt would win.

Sysonby was ranked by at least one prominent turf writer of the day, Neil Newman, as one of the best three thoroughbreds he had ever seen (the other two were Colin and Man O’ War). The bay colt was not much of a looker and it had been Keene’s intent to sell him overseas, but his trainer, James G. Rowe Sr. persuaded him otherwise.

A son of 1885 Epsom Derby winner, Melton, and Keene’s mare, Optime (a granddaughter of the great Ormonde), Sysonby was to prove himself almost invincible on the track. Sysonby was only defeated once in 15 starts — by the fillies Artful and Tradition in the Futurity Stakes — but in that instance, it was discovered that Sysonby’s groom had been bribed to drug the colt before the race.

Even drugged, Sysonby came home a valiant third.

Sysonby at work. He may not have been beautiful, but he was one of America’s all-time greats at the time of his premature death, from variola, on June 17, 1906. Sysonby was only 4 yrs. 4 months old.

The Metropolitan was to end in a dead heat between Sysonby and a colt called Race King, who carried 97 lbs. to Sysonby’s 107.

The program on Opening Day at Belmont, highlighting the runners in the featured race.


Another thoroughbred champion associated with Belmont Park was Colin, who broke his maiden over the dirt there in 1907 and went on to win the Belmont Stakes as a 3 year-old in 1908.

Bred by James R. Keene at his Castleton Farm, Colin’s sire was Commando, a son of the incomparable Domino, both of whom were owned by Keene, who was also the breeder of Commando. The colt was arguably the most prominent of Commando’s offspring, he Domino sire line as an American (thoroughbred) foundation family.

Domino, the grandsire of Colin.

Commando sired Colin, as well as Peter Pan and Celt (sire of Marguerite and BM sire of Triple Crown winner, Gallant Fox). He won the Belmont Stakes in 1901, as would both Colin and Peter Pan. Arguably the best of Domino’s sons, Commando died prematurely of tetanus after producing only 27 offspring. However, those 27 were sufficient to ensure the influence of the Domino line in the modern thoroughbred.

Colin was also trained by James Rowe Sr. and is shown here with asst. trainer, Marshall Lily.

Colin at work with Marshall Lily in the irons.

Colin’s Belmont win —  his fouteenth in 14 starts — was dramatic: the colt was entered even though he had come up lame, either as a result of dual bows in his front legs or severe soreness. His chief rival would be none other than the gritty Fair Play, whom Colin had met and defeated before. On the day of the Belmont it poured and the horses started off in the rain. Fat curtains of fog obscured the track…….

Fair Play, the sire of Man O’ War, during his racing years.

……how Colin did it, we will never really know, but he made it to the wire just before the quick closing Fair Play whizzed passed him. His great heart as well as his racing prowess resulted in his taking Horse of the Year in 1908.

Undefeated in 15 starts, Colin was retired at age 4 and went on to have a moderate influence on the thoroughbred of today, through such descendants as Alsab, Ack Ack, Youth, Broad Brush and Concern. Even though Colin had several owners after his retirement, James R. Keene considered him the best colt he ever bred — and this was the ultimate compliment from a man who had bred many outstanding thoroughbreds during his lifetime.

Below, Alsab returns to Belmont to capture the Withers.


It’s fair to say that since its opening in 1905, Belmont Park has been visited by all the greats of American thoroughbred racing at one time or another.  Below are a few of the many that raced right into history over Big Sandy, as well as into our hearts and imagination……..

Man O’ War won the 1920 Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths and set a new track record. He would return that same year to take The Jockey Gold Cup.

The great French thoroughbred champion, Epinard, raced at Belmont in 1924. It was one of three international races the colt would run in the USA. He finished third in all three, but his performance was spectacular enough to earn Epinard US Champion Older Male that same year. Owned and bred by Pierre Wertheimer, the colt was ridden by jockey Everett Haynes.

Papyrus, the Epsom Derby champion, met America’s Kentucky Derby winner, Zev, at Belmont in a Match Race on October 20, 1923. Papyrus is shown here with famous jockey, Steve Donaghue, up. Of note, the British Derby champion figures in Zenyatta’s pedigree.

Zev, ridden by Earle Sande, went on to decisively win the Match Race against Papyrus. One wonders if the British colt’s long journey to get to the USA wasn’t a bonus, although Zev was a wonderful thoroughbred in his own right.

Shown below is Gallant Man’s impressive victory in the 1957 Belmont Stakes. Probably the most famous story of Gallant Man’s racing ,career was his loss to Iron Leige in the Kentucky Derby, due to a misjudgement on the part of his jockey, Bill Shoemaker. Mistaking the exact position of the finish line, Shoemaker stood in the stirrups too early. Accordingly, Gallant Man slowed down just before the finish line, allowing Iron Leige to surge passed him to win. The blunder was arguably the worst in American horse racing and Shoemaker never really lived it down.

But in the Belmont, Gallant Man made it all look too easy. The Nerud-trained colt won by 8 lengths, beating Bold Ruler among others, and in a record time that stood until Secretariat.

Lady’s Secret, Secretariat’s most accomplished daughter on the track, would start 45 times in her career, 15 of which were at Belmont. The champion broke her maiden at Belmont and then went on to win the Bowl of Flowers and Rose Stakes, as well as the Maskette, Ruffian and Beldame Stakes twice each. The “Iron Lady” also won the Shuvee, Metropolitan, Whitney and Hempstead Handicaps at Belmont.

Here is Lady’s Secret, winning the Beldame at Belmont:

Undoubtedly, one of the most dramatic runs on the Belmont track came in 1996 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where Skipaway and Preakness winner, Louis Quatorze, took on Cigar in what would be the great horse’s last race at Big Sandy.


It would be impossible to conclude this article without honouring one of the greatest performances in the whole history of thoroughbred racing.

Big Sandy is many things — a site of history, victory and loss. But it is first and foremost the crucible of thoroughbred racing in this part of the world. And perhaps no horse will ever again dwarf a track that is the deepest, the longest and the most challenging in North America the way Secretariat did on that afternoon in June, 1973.

Told in the words and reminiscences of those who were there to see it, this is a particularly touching tribute to a big red colt who walked onto the track as a possible Triple Crown winner and left it a thoroughbred legend, as beloved today as he was 39 years ago.

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