The Belmont Stakes is the oldest of the three Triple Crown races, and given its longevity the contest has seen its fair share of upsets, with the majority of those have come in roughly the last third of the race’s 154-year history.
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 bids for immortality denied.
In advance of Belmont Stakes 155 on June 10th, here are some memorable upsets from the 21st century.
2002: SARAVA The 134th Belmont Stakes ended with a 70-1 Winner and another Triple Crown bid dashed, this time due to a very untimely stumble out of the starting gate.
WAR EMBLEM had romped in the Kentucky Derby and Won by three-quarters of a length in the Preakness– flashing elite speed from the outset and showing enough stamina to hang on late.
WAR EMBLEM nearly went to his knees immediately after the gate opened in the Belmont, and jockey Victor Espinoza had to rush the even money favorite up into contention while being bottled up on the inside as the field made its way through the backstretch.
WAR EMBLEM engaged with 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 toast.
Trainer Ken McPeek decided to enter SARAVA 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 would never Win again.
2004: BIRDSTONE The 2004 Belmont Stakes may have not set the parimutuel record for biggest upset, but it holds top status among modern-day horse racing fans as, unequivocally, the most gut-wrenching finish.
That June, anticipation for the Belmont Stakes was at a level not seen since the sport’s heyday of the 1970s. The excitement was all because of 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 was the proverbial little guy’s horse. Trained by John Servis, and ridden by journeyman Stewart Elliott, SMARTY JONES towered above a Belmont field that included BIRDSTONE, a well-bred colt owned by Saratoga icon Marylou Whitney and trained by Nick Zito.
In the Derby BIRDSTONE finished in 8th-place, 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 by Elliott 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 Elliott let his colt run freely and SMARTY 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. SMARTY JONES never raced again.
2008: DA’ TARA While not reaching the level of SMARTY JONES, 2008 Triple Crown hopeful BIG BROWN did generate some positive fan support entering the Belmont with his unbeaten 5-0 record and open-length Wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
BIG BROWN had clearly established himself as the best of his age group and was a heavy 3-10 favorite in the Belmont – the lowest odds for a post-time favorite since SPECTACULAR BID in 1979.
But, some concerns lingered. For one, his pedigree was very suspect for the taxing 1 ½-mile Test of the Champion. Second, BIG BROWN had developed a quarter-crack after the Preakness that had interrupted his training.
Whatever the reason, BIG BROWN was a non-factor in the Belmont, breaking erratically from the rail post and fighting jockey Kent Desormeaux’s attempts to control him through the first turn and into the backstretch.
Meanwhile, unheralded DA’ TARA, the longest shot in the nine-horse Belmont field at 38-1, went right to the lead under Alan Garcia and was never challenged.
By the time DA’ TARA rolled into the stretch on the way to a 5 ¼-length Win over DENIS OF CORK, Desormeaux had pulled BIG BROWN up and directed him off of the track.
DA’ TARA gave Nick Zito his second Belmont Win four years after BIRDSTONE upset SMARTY JONES.
2014: TONALIST The spunky California-bred CALIFORNIA CHROME was of modest origins and, like SMARTY JONES ten years earlier, managed to captivate racing fans nationwide.
He first rose to prominence with Wins in the Derby preps at Santa Anita Park. With jockey Victor Espinoza aboard, he scored authoritative Wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Racing followers rode a whirlwind of excitement 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 trained by Christophe Clement who was improving at just the right time and had Won the Peter Pan Stakes on the main track 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 Belmont’s long 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 entering the Belmont, and finished a close 4th.
TONALIST, on the other hand, had just enough stamina to overtake a game COMMISSIONER and Win by a head under the guidance of Joel Rosario.