Belmont Stakes: Why ‘Test of the Champion’ is the hardest to win

It is the oldest event in American horse racing’s esteemed Triple Crown, and — with the nickname of “Test of the Champion” — it is perhaps the hardest to win.

The Belmont Stakes, which takes place on Long Island, New York, Saturday pits three-year-old thoroughbreds over a grueling mile-and-a-half on dirt for perhaps the first time in their lives.

Few have experienced a sustained test of stamina and speed. Timing their run is everything.

There’s no Triple Crown up for grabs this year — for winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same season — but the 149th running of the Belmont Stakes represents a significant prize in its own right.

The winner takes $800,000 from a purse of $1.5 million with $280,00 to the second and $150,000 to the third.

The Belmont Stakes was first held at Jerome Park racetrack in the Bronx in 1867 — six years before the inaugural Preakness, eight years before the Kentucky Derby — before switching to nearby Morris Park in 1890 and then to Belmont Park, just outside Queens, in 1906.

The race — named after August Belmont I, a New York financier, politician and society figure — has only missed two editions, when anti-gambling laws in New York forced its cancellation in 1911 and 1912.

Running in — and winning — all three US Classics in the space of five weeks is a demanding task. Only 12 horses have completed the Triple Crown at Belmont — the last, and first for 37 years, was American Pharoah in 2015 while California Chrome was the last to be denied in 2014.

One of the most celebrated champions was Secretariat, which won by 31 lengths in a record time of 2:24 in 1973. “Big Red,” as he was known, became the ninth Triple Crown winner and the first for 25 years.

Man O’ War is another Belmont legend for his record-breaking 1920 triumph over a shorter distance.

This year’s Triple Crown bid was scuppered when Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming finished a distant eighth behind Cloud Computing at the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico at the end of May.

In the absence of Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing, Preakness second Classic Empire will line up as favorite Saturday but the Derby fourth will have his work cut out to defy history and triumph after such a heavy schedule.

Japan’s Epicharis is also highly rated but there have been only nine foreign-born winners, the last being Canada’s Victory Gallop in 1998.

Irish War Cry is another with significant chances after being rested for the Preakness Stakes following an uncharacteristic flat performance in the Kentucky Derby.

“Having seen him train, having seen the result of the Preakness, I think we need to take a shot,” said trainer Graham Motion.

“It’s a classic and, if he’s doing well, I think it’s a shame if he’s sitting in the barn.”

Another horse likely to be in the frame is Lookin at Lee, which was second at Churchill Downs and fourth in the Preakness Stakes.

The Todd Pletcher-trained, one-eyed Patch has Derby-winning jockey John Velazquez onboard after finishing 14th in Kentucky, while Pletcher’s best prospect is likely to be Tapwrit, which was sixth in the Derby.

The Belmont Stakes is also known as the “Run for the Carnations” after the tradition of draping the winner in a blanket of white carnations.

It is a tribute similar to the blanket or roses, and black-eyed Susans awarded to the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness respectively.

There may be no Triple Crown at stake this year, but the winner of the Belmont Stakes will certainly have blossomed as one of the best of his — or her — generation.