Racing officials at New York's Aqueduct track polished up the fancy three-sided Triple Crown trophy last week and on Saturday lugged it ceremoniously through a light drizzle to a nook by the trackside winner's circle. The most fashionable crowd seen at any U.S. track—and one of the largest, with 61,215 paid admissions—stirred nervously in its supermarket surroundings, politely noticed the Canadian flag fluttering in the infield's wet wind and sat back to wait for New York's racing boss, James Cox Brady, to dish out the silverware in tribute to Northern Dancer, Owner E. P. Taylor, Trainer Horatio Luro and that eloquent master of the word, saddle and whip, William Hartack.
But, alas, neither the horse nor the trio which had steered the fine and courageous Canadian-bred 3-year-old ever made it to the winner's circle. The Triple Crown mug remained snug in its velvet wrapper—for at least another year—and late in the gray afternoon it was all but forgotten. Paul Mellon's Virginia-bred Quadrangle, fifth in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness, smothered seven rivals to win the 96th Belmont by two lengths in the near track-record time of 2:28[2/5] for the classic distance of a mile and a half. Hartack and Northern Dancer were lucky to finish third, six lengths behind the winner, four behind Roman Brother and just half a length in front of Hill Rise, their old rival from California.
Horses running a mile and a half for the first time in their young lives tend to be uncertain propositions. E. P. Taylor thought Northern Dancer would run better in the Belmont than he had in winning the shorter classics in May. (Trainer Luro prophetically suggested, however, that the best distance for him might be no more than 1‚⅛ miles.) George Pope, owner of Hill Rise, said, "We figured to give our horse a little rest after the Preakness in order to have a fresh horse for the Belmont. So what happens? We bring in a fresh horse and the first two finishers are the only horses in the race who ran brilliantly just the week before. How are you going to figure this game anyway?"
True, Roman Brother had run brilliantly the previous week in winning the Jersey Derby. Many thought that because this tiny gelding, nicknamed Mighty Mouse by Trainer Burley Parke and Owner Lou Wolfson, had performed so honestly all season (the Belmont was his 12th start of the year) he might win; if he did not he would be precious close.
As for Quadrangle, he added a whole new set of factors to the equation. He, too, had run brilliantly in winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in April. In the Derby he suffered slightly by being pinched back at the start. In the Preakness he suffered no difficulty of any kind and was soundly trounced. "I should have done more with him before that race," said Trainer Elliott Burch. "It won't happen again."
It didn't. Burch reminded himself of how, five years ago, he sharpened Sword Dancer's speed to win the Belmont by running him against older horses in the one-mile Metropolitan.
Quadrangle was sent along the same route. The only 3-year-old in the Memorial Day Metropolitan, he ran a rousing second to Olden Times even though he loafed in the stretch. "I don't think it hurt him to go a mile against top sprinters," said Burch later. "It should help him keep his speed, and at last I think he can be rated over a real distance of ground. The Metropolitan also showed me he should run without blinkers." In the Belmont, Quadrangle raced unblinkered for the first time since March.
Five days before the Belmont, Burch was still pessimistic about starting in the last of the Triple Crown races. "This is a whale of a crop of 3-year-olds," he said. "And Northern Dancer is far and away the best. I just don't know if we should tangle with him again for a while."
Twenty-four hours later, Burch had a change of mind. "Quadrangle has trained like a million dollars," he decided. "He loves Aqueduct, he's on the bit and he's ready to run." He got on the phone to Owner Mellon in Upperville, Va. and said, hesitatingly, "I'd like to run your horse if it's O.K. with you." "It's all right with me," said Mellon. After the Belmont, Mellon laughed at the recollection of the conversation and added, "It only goes to prove that you can't win races by not running in them."
On Belmont Day the upset of the racing year may not have been engineered so much by a dead-fit Quadrangle superbly trained by Burch as it was by the strategic errors of Jockeys Bill Hartack on Northern Dancer and Bill Shoemaker on Hill Rise. They were guilty of the oldest mistake in race riding: watching each other and forgetting the rest. And forgetting the painfully slow early pace.
"You simply cannot," said George Pope afterward, "give any good horse a decent lead under a slow pace and hope to catch him. Shoe and Hartack underestimated Quadrangle and Manuel Ycaza, and they paid for it." Luro found it difficult to hide his disappointment. "The race was run slowly for the first mile, and that certainly didn't help us. I can't criticize Hartack, because he followed his orders. I told him Quadrangle would be on the pace or close to it, but the trouble is that Quadrangle rated better than I thought he would. We all have to lose once in a while. It's too bad."
Where Ycaza and Quadrangle won may have been early in the race. Orientalist took the lead at the start. Shoe had Hill Rise second and then third but, going into the first turn, Ycaza neatly dropped Quadrangle down on the rail and saved yards and yards of ground. "That was only one thing," said Ycaza afterward. "He saved ground, but he was now in a position to do his best in a free-running way, completely relaxed and striding long. I didn't care how far Orientalist was in front of us, because I knew the pace was slow and I had a relaxed horse full of run."
Up the backstretch Hill Rise and Northern Dancer were pressing, but not very aggressively. At the half-mile pole, with Orientalist tiring in front of him, Ycaza sent Quadrangle to the lead just as soon as he saw Hartack bring Northern Dancer up on the outside for one of his famous sudden moves. "I could have taken the lead any time I wanted to," said Ycaza, "but I was in no hurry." Coolly awaiting the right moment, Ycaza did not hurry his horse until he reached the head of the stretch, and then really set him down. When he did he had more finishing kick than anybody else. The result, from the quarter pole home, was never in doubt. And the fractions—49 seconds for the first half, 1:14[4/5] for the six furlongs, 1:39⅖ for the mile, followed by a 2:04 mile and a quarter and the full distance in 2:28[2/5]—reveal why Ycaza could win going away in a field that underestimated both his horse and the significance of time on a U.S. track.
This was a race run with everyone taking back for the first part of it and trying to run only the last quarter mile (much like some wondrous trackmen on the other coast—see page 28). When that happens the form at Hialeah, Santa Anita, Churchill Downs and Pimlico goes out the window. The form was demolished by a beautiful animal whose capabilities now seem almost limitless.
When it was all over and the wet Canadian flag had been hauled down, nobody was unduly depressed, except perhaps the Canadian fans who had come down to celebrate the first Triple Crown horse since Citation in 1948. Even Bill Hartack, who usually speaks to nobody when he loses, was ready to discuss Northern Dancer's defeat. He did it matter-of-factly and with typical frankness: "This horse was exactly where I wanted him to be. He ran his race. He tried hard, and that's that. I'm not disappointed, because how can you be disappointed in a horse that tries his best? He ran right down to the wire as hard as he could, but he just didn't run fast enough. Remember, you can't be given a Triple Crown. The horse still has to win it. This horse was fit and in good shape. The only trouble is that he just didn't have it at a mile and a half." (Hartack, in the throes of a losing streak himself, celebrated Belmont Day by parting company with his latest agent. Lenny Goodman.)
Shoemaker had no real alibi for Hill Rise except to say that he was bothered slightly by Northern Dancer on the far turn. "I had to steady my horse because Hartack was crowding me. If I hadn't I think I would have been third instead of fourth." Shoe's claim of foul was not allowed.
The last word, however, belonged to Ycaza. "You know," he said with a beaming smile, "when I leave home this morning I say to my wife and baby, I'll bring the winner home.' All the way down the stretch I'm shouting at myself, 'Let's go get that Belmont, let's go get that Belmont.' " When Ycaza isn't feuding with the track stewards he can be very polite. To Paul Mellon he said, "I thank you very much, sir, for giving me the opportunity to ride your horse." Mellon smiled softly and contentedly.