Living in a racing era which puts an increasingly heavy accent on races of a mile and a sixteenth or under, we usually find it somewhat difficult to appreciate that racing's oldest tradition calls for a mile and a half as the classic middle distance.
Today, just to illustrate to what extent U.S. racing has veered from the original conception of the classics, there are but a handful of distance stakes run each year. Even in England, whence the heritage came, breeders apparently have been persuaded that there is a greater public demand for sprinters. Commercially speaking, that's fine, but for the English breeder or owner who retains his respect for tradition there was nothing but gloom on the horizon at Epsom last week as the numbers went up following the 177th running of the Derby, a mile-and-a-half grind which European horsemen still struggle to win as they struggle to win no other race in the world. The point of British breeding deficiency was painfully driven home when the French colt Lavandin came down in front after a superb ride by 51-year-old Australian Rae (Le Crocodile) Johnstone (SI, Nov. 15, 1954) ahead of another invader from France, Monteval, while an Irish colt, Roistar, finished third. No Englishman had to be reminded that France—where there is still a heavy emphasis on stamina as well as speed—has now accounted for five of the 11 postwar Derbies.
The whole question of speed and stamina naturally leads us to our own distance races, and in particular to the U.S. equivalent of the Epsom Derby, which is this week's 88th running of the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. The so-called third leg of the American Triple Crown has been referred to as a breeder's race. Ask a horseman why he'd like to win the Kentucky Derby and his honestly given answer would be that he would thoroughly enjoy the worldwide prestige and publicity. Ask the same man why he'd like to win the Belmont and the reply would be that the winner of the Belmont usually not only proves himself the top 3-year-old of his generation but he also stands the best chance of becoming a successful stallion when his racing days are over. In fact, nine of the past 10 Belmont winners were selected as the champion 3-year-olds of their respective years.
BELMONT IS BEST
Much has been said about the significance of the Kentucky Derby and how—for all its prestige—the first Saturday in May might be too early in the career of a 3-year-old to ask him to carry 126 pounds for a mile and a quarter. To be sure, winter racing and even winter training may possibly bring a horse into racing maturity faster than was the case 50 years ago, but the point to be made here is that many a Derby winner may still have won because his opposition had not reached the same degree of maturity. In effect, then, the best horse doesn't automatically win the Derby, but six weeks later a colt, in order to carry the same weight an extra quarter of a mile, almost has to be the best to win the Belmont. For, most important of all, he has to be sound and durable to withstand training. And, of course, he must—like the French Epsom Derby winners—have both speed and stamina. No sprinter has ever won the Belmont, whereas a check of the Kentucky Derby records would reveal an occasional year where the winner got by on speed alone.
Although some experts hold to the theory that speed comes from the sire and the stamina from the dam, it is probable that both parents contribute almost equally.
Looking over the list of probable Belmont starters we come to some pretty familiar names. The most interesting colts, of course, are Needles and Fabius, whose rivalry in the Derby and Preakness has done as much as anything to build up the Belmont to a point where it now must be considered as the conclusive test between the pair, and, in all likelihood, the test to determine true 3-year-old championship honors. In winning the Derby, Needles demonstrated a magnificent stretch run to catch and defeat Fabius. Two weeks later his stretch run lacked its customary punch and Fabius was the Preakness winner. In neither of these races were any of the other starters serious factors in the late running. Thus, on the surface, you might conclude that the Belmont should wind up as a two-horse race and that such other prospective starters as Career Boy, Jazz Age, Countermand and possibly Ricci Tavi, Beau Diable and Third Brother will string along merely in quest of third and fourth money. Let's dig then, for a moment, beneath the surface and see what some of the bloodlines of these colts reveal. Fabius is a son of Citation and therefore is descended from one of the great horses produced in this country. The word "great," far too loosely tossed around in the evaluation of horseflesh these days, is taken here to mean a horse who could sprint, go the middle distances, go the long way, carry weight and win decisively. Citation, a Belmont winner himself, had these attributes. Fabius' dam, the unraced Shameen, is a daughter of the good runner Royal Minstrel and descends also from the noted sire The Tetrarch. Thus, Fabius, in the true sense of the word, is classically bred.
Needles has distinguished blood on his top side only. His sire, Ponder, although second to Capot in the 1949 Belmont, is a descendant of Hyperion and Gainsborough and Bayardo—all three of whom were champions in England. A possible flaw, however, might be detected in Needles' bottom line. His dam, Noodle Soup, shows a preponderance of sprinting blood.
NEEDLES IS RESTED
Of the others Career Boy and Jazz Age show the most on paper. The former is by the Belmont winner Phalanx and the latter is by Priam II, but both these colts are out of daughters of Mahmoud, whose record for the Epsom Derby still stands. Countermand, although descended from a classic top line, including Hyperion, shows sprinting blood on his dam's side.
Until Fabius' shocking defeat in the mile-and-a-furlong Leonard Richards at Delaware Park last Saturday (when he lost by six lengths to Ricci Tavi) I was ready to give the Calumet colt an excellent chance—largely on the strength of his better breeding—to upset Needles for the second time. Now his prospects seem slimmer. Moreover, his regular jockey, Willie Hartack, having just been set down, won't be riding. Needles has had four weeks of rest and light work since his Preakness loss, and this should help. Career Boy, who always finishes fast despite a late start, should love the longer distance and I don't see how you can give up on him quite yet. The 88th Belmont should be between these three. But the 88th Belmont, like all the other Belmonts before it—and like the Epsom Derby last week, will answer one question that has yet to come up this year. For one afternoon at least the accent on sprinting will be forgotten and the honors, reverting to racing's oldest tradition, will go to the 1956 3-year-old with both speed and stamina.