Historic Belmont Upsets

The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the three Triple Crown races. As such, it has seen a fair share of upsets- the majority of which have occurred in the last 50 years.

During the post-World War II era, 20 horses have come into the Belmont Stakes with Wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, only to have their bid for immortality denied.

In advance of this years Belmont Stakes (#153), which is shaping up to be a wide-open affair, capable of producing its own unpredictable result, here’s a look back at four of the most memorable upsets in the last twenty years of this event.

2002: SARAVA lights up the tote board. WAR EMBLEM stumbles. The 134th Belmont Stakes ended with a 70-1 Winner and yet another Triple Crown bid denied.

WAR EMBLEM nearly went to his knees immediately after the gate opened, and jockey Victor Espinoza rushed to get the 6-5 favorite up into contention while being bottled up on the inside as the field made its way through the backstretch.

WAR EMBLEM engaged pacesetter MEDAGLIA D’ORO in a bid for the lead entering the far turn but could not take over, and by the five-sixteenths pole he was finished.

Under Edgar Prado, longshot SARAVA moved up between horses entering the stretch and then dueled with MEDAGLIA D’ORO to the finish, prevailing by a half-length. His $142.50 return for a $2 bet set a Belmont Stakes record that still stands.

SARAVA would never Win again after the biggest Victory in his career.

2004: BIRDSTONE silences a record crowd. The 2004 Belmont Stakes may have not set the parimutuel record for biggest upset – see the previous entry – but it holds top status among modern-day horse racing fans as the most heart-wrenching finish, without question.

That June, anticipation for the Belmont Stakes was at a level not seen since the sport’s heyday of the 1970s – not even the Triple Crown bids of fan favorites SILVER CHARM and REAL QUIET in the 1990’s could compete. And it was all because of SMARTY JONES– the proverbial little guy’s horse.

SMARTY JONES was sent off as the 4-5 favorite in the nine-horse Belmont field, while BIRDSTONE was 36-1. Before a record (still) crowd of 120,139 eager to witness history, he broke well from the outside post but was kept just off the early lead until the field hit the backstretch. He took over after the half-mile marker and continued on well through the long backstretch despite being pressured, and midway through the far turn opened up on the field.

As SMARTY JONES entered the homestretch, only one horse had a chance to catch him – BIRDSTONE, who had grinded his way into 2nd under Edgar Prado. For a few fleeting moments, it appeared that SMARTY JONES, although tiring, just might have enough left to hold off his challenger and become the first Triple Crown Winner since 1978. But in the final strides he gave up the lead and a multitude of desperate cheers suddenly stopped. BIRDSTONE prevailed by a length.

2008: DA’ TARA wire to wire, BIG BROWN fizzles. 2008 Triple Crown hopeful BIG BROWN had generated some positive fan support entering the Belmont with his unbeaten 5-0 record and open-length wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

He was a heavy 3-10 favorite in the Belmont – the lowest odds for a Post-Time favorite since SPECTACULAR BID in 1979.

Whatever his odds, BIG BROWN was a total non-factor in the Belmont, breaking erratically from the rail Post Position and fighting jockey Kent Desormeaux all through the first turn and into the backstretch.

Meanwhile, unheralded DA’ TARA, the longest shot in the nine-horse Belmont field at 39-1, went right to the lead under Alan Garcia and was never challenged. By the time he rolled into the stretch on his way to a 5 ¼-length Win over DENIS OF CORK, Desormeaux had pulled up BIG BROWN and directed him off of the track.

2014: TONALIST proves best, Chrome shine fades. Racing followers rode a whirlwind of excitement into the 146th Belmont, where CALIFORNIA CHROME was sent off as the 8-5 favorite against a quality field.

Among the challengers was 9-1 TONALIST– who was improving at just the right time and had Won the Peter Pan Stakes on the Belmont main track four weeks earlier.

In the Belmont Stakes, CALIFORNIA CHROME stumbled out of the gate but recovered quickly to stalk the pace in 4th, one spot behind TONALIST.

Both colts had good trips chasing 28-1 longshot pacesetter COMMISSIONER through the long Belmont backstretch, and they remained in contention through the far turn, setting up a thrilling finale.

The cheers for CALIFORNIA CHROME cascading down from the 102,199 fans in attendance (third-largest in history) were deafening, but he did not accelerate in the stretch the way he had in his six consecutive Wins entering the Belmont, as he finished a close 4th.

TONALIST, on the other hand, had just enough stamina to overtake a stubborn COMMISSIONER and Win by a head under jockey Joel Rosario.  

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