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.
BELMONT PARK: Opening Day
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…….
……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.
OTHER GREATS WHO TOOK ON BIG SANDY
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……..
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.
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 WAS LIKE GOD WAS HOLDING THE REINS AND SECRETARIAT WAS ONE OF HIS CREATURES…”
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.