Commentary

A dash of hopes

The Belmont Stakes, where Triple Crown dreams crash and burn

Updated: May 26, 2014, 5:43 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

They are 12 different horses, but they all share the same story. They won the Kentucky Derby, they won the Preakness, and they came to Belmont Park prepared to make history. They were all confronted by obstacles, but frankly, none that looked to be all that difficult. From Spectacular Bid in 1979 to I'll Have Another in 2012, these were horses that had proved to be the best of their class in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and just needed to flaunt their superiority one last time. But none did. Instead, they compiled a collective record of failure that is stunning.

How did they all blow it? There is no one answer, but 12. A look at how and why each one lost:

1979: Spectacular Bid
Odds: 3-10
Finished: 3rd

Trainer Bud Delp went to his grave swearing that Spectacular Big stepped on a large safety pin just before the race and therefore ran hurt. Some believed him. Some didn't. It's just as likely that he was done in by a poor ride from Ron Franklin, his inexperienced 19-year-old jockey. Franklin chased after an 85-1 shot named Gallant Best down the backstretch after fast early fractions of 23 ⅖ seconds and 47 ⅗ seconds. Franklin seemed so intent on getting past the hopeless long shot that he saved nothing for the stretch run. Many believe Spectacular Bid is the best horse not to have won the Triple Crown.

1981: Pleasant Colony
Odds: 4-5
Finished: 3rd

Pleasant Colony was a very good horse but not necessarily the type of all-time great that usually wins the Triple Crown. In order to win he needed to give an A-plus effort every time, and this time he was just a little bit flat. ''You can't be sorry; that's the name of the game," trainer Johnny Campo said afterward. "You can't win 'em all. My horse was trying to run but he wasn't gaining any ground and he wasn't losing any ground.''

1987: Alysheba
Odds: 4-5
Finished: 4th

The drug Lasix had recently been legalized in many states but was still banned in New York. Alysheba used it in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but had to run without it in the Belmont. It's impossible to tell how reliant he was on Lasix, but he was a far different horse than the one who won the Derby and Preakness as he suffered a 14 ¼-length defeat. Jockey Chris McCarron tried to take some of the blame, saying he was guilty of over-restraining Alysheba in the early going. The credit also has to go to the race winner, Bet Twice. He picked an important day to run the race of his life. He proved that the Belmont was not a fluke as he beat Alysheba twice more, in the Haskell Invitational and the following year's Pimlico Special.

1989: Sunday Silence
Odds: 9-10
Finished: 2nd

In what was really the sport's last great rivalry, Easy Goer and Sunday Silence battled it out in the Derby and the Preakness, where only a nose separated them at the wire. With these horses being so evenly matched, Sunday Silence couldn't let up in the Belmont. But he did. Sunday Silence didn't run his best, and Easy Goer put in the best race of his career and won by eight lengths.

1997: Silver Charm
Odds: 1-1
Finished: 2nd

Silver Charm gave it a good fight but couldn't hold off the late rally of Touch Gold, himself a top-quality horse. He might have beaten him in the Preakness as well if not stumbling badly at the start. Trainer Bob Baffert said that Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold coming and therefore didn't bear down and fight back.

1998: Real Quiet
Odds: 4-5
Finished: 2nd

Real Quiet was arguably the least talented among those on the list of horses tripped up in the Belmont since 1978, yet he came the closest of any, losing by a mere nose to Victory Gallop. Many blamed jockey Kent Desormeaux. He made a big move halfway through the race and wound up opening up on the field by five lengths in the stretch. He collapsed in the final yards and got caught by Victory Gallop.

1999: Charismatic
Odds 8-5
Finished: 3rd

Charismatic was a former claimer who came from nowhere to win the Derby and then the Preakness. In the Belmont, Charismatic had the lead at the top of the stretch but couldn't deliver a winning stretch run. A few yards after the wire it became clear why, as he was pulled up by jockey Chris Antley, suffering from two fractured bones in his left front leg. The incident likely happened before the finish and kept Charismatic from giving it his all when it mattered.

2002: War Emblem
Odds: 6-5
Finished: 8th

Like California Chrome, War Emblem's rider was Victor Espinoza. War Emblem lost all chance when stumbling badly at the start.

2003: Funny Cide
Odds: 1-1
Finished: 3rd

Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby, but not everyone was convinced he was the best horse that day. Empire Maker won the Florida Derby and then the Wood Memorial before finishing second in the Derby. He was wider than Funny Cide throughout, which might have made the difference. In what would soon develop into a trend, Empire Maker's trainer, Bobby Frankel, passed on the Preakness and then ambushed a worn-down Funny Cide in the Belmont with a fresh Empire Maker.

2004: Smarty Jones
Odds: Less than 2-5
Finished: 2nd

Like Real Quiet, Smarty Jones turned for home with a sizable lead but couldn't hold on. Some blamed Stewart Elliott for moving too soon, but it's more likely that Smarty Jones just couldn't get a mile and a half.

2008: Big Brown
Odds: 3-10
Finish: Was eased

He looked like the lock of the century. Not only had Big Brown dominated in the Kentucky Derby, but he faced one of the weakest groups of Belmont challengers ever assembled. Big Brown figured to control the race every step of the way, but Desormeaux instead chose to rate him. It seemed to throw Big Brown off his game, and Desormeaux threw in the towel and pulled the horse up. The winner was Da' Tara, a horse so bad that he never won again.

2012: I'll Have Another
Did not run

Was scratched the day before the race and retired.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com

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