The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the Triple Crown races. So, as you might expect the contest has seen its fair share of upsets.
In advance of Belmont Stakes 154 on June 11th, which appears to be a wide-open affair capable of producing its own unpredictable result, here’s a look back at 3 of the race’s most memorable upsets of the 21st century.
SARAVA 2002: The 134th Belmont Stakes ended with a 70-1 Winner and yet another Triple Crown bid dashed. WAR EMBLEM romped in the Kentucky Derby and Won by three-quarters of a length in the Preakness by flashing elite speed from the outset and showing enough stamina to hang on late.
The fickle finger of fate was pointing at WAR EMBLEM on Belmont day as he nearly went to his knees immediately after the gate opened. Jockey Victor Espinoza had to rush the 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.
Trainer Ken McPeek decided to enter SARAVA in the Belmont after he Won the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on the Preakness undercard, and under Edgar Prado, the longshot 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 did not Win another race the remainder of his career.
BIRDSTONE 2004: The 2004 Belmont Stakes may have not set the parimutuel record for biggest upset – see above – 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 1970’s. It was due to SMARTY JONES. The Pennsylvania-bred had captured the attention of a nationwide sports audience after going undefeated through eight starts, the most recent Wins coming by 2 ¾ lengths in the Kentucky Derby and an amazing 11 ½ lengths in the Preakness. He towered above a Belmont field that included BIRDSTONE, a well-bred colt owned by Saratoga icon Marylou Whitney and trained by the legendary Nick Zito. BIRDSTONE finished in 8th place in the Derby, 15 ¼ lengths behind SMARTY JONES.
As such, SMARTY JONES was sent off as the 3-5 favorite in the nine-horse Belmont field, while BIRDSTONE was 36-1. Before a (still-record) crowd of 120,139 eager to witness history, SMARTY JONES 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 SMARTY opened up on the field.
As he entered the homestretch, only one horse had a chance to catch him – BIRDSTONE, who had grinded his way into 2nd. 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. SMARTY JONES never raced again.
TONALIST 2014: Ten years after BIRDSTONE upset SMARTY JONES another spunky colt from modest beginnings came along to captivate fans nationwide. CALIFORNIA CHROME was a California-bred who first rose to prominence with Wins in Derby preps at Santa Anita Park, and during May, when he scored authoritative Wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
There was a whirlwind of excitement heading into the 146th Belmont, where CALIFORNIA CHROME was sent off as the 4-5 favorite against a quality field. Among the challengers was 9-1 TONALIST, a colt who was improving at just the right time and had Won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont 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 from 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 prior to Belmont, and finished 4th, once again denying jockey Victor Espinoza Triple Crown glory (which he would Win the following year on AMERICAN PHAROAH).
TONALIST, on the other hand, had just enough stamina to overtake a game COMMISSIONER and Win by a head under Joel Rosario.