Just about the time George F. Seuffert's band was warming up to tootle its melancholy way through The Sidewalks of New York at Belmont Park last Saturday, the sun made its first appearance in a day that had been as cloudy as the 3-year-old picture had been all season. A few minutes later, his chestnut coat gleaming in the sunlight, Little Current raced to a seven-length victory in the Belmont Stakes to clear up that situation, too. Never mind the parade of 3-year-olds who had taken turns this year at the top of the heap. Little Current's decisive back-to-back triumphs in the Preakness and the Belmont mean one thing: he is the best.
As he had three weeks earlier at Pimlico, John Galbreath's son of Sea-Bird came from far back to catch Cannonade, the Kentucky Derby winner, in the stretch and gallop on to his imposing margin of victory—coincidentally, the same in both races. In the Belmont there may have been some slight feeling of suspense for a mile and a quarter of the mile and a half distance since Jockey Miguel Rivera kept Little Current far back in eighth place in the nine-horse field for most of the way. But when Little Current moved on the leaders in the stretch, the contest was over with a suddenness and a finality that left no questions unanswered.
Belmont Day in New York does not inspire the high emotion and tear-jerking sentimentality that grip audiences in various ways at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. No streakers—indeed, no spectators—inhabit the Belmont infield, where even the lawn sprinklers move in graceful, ballet-like circles. But what Belmont does have is a classic race in the European style, a test of both speed and stamina that separates the average stakes winner from a top horse. Winners win on merit, and losers lose for the same reason. As Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, chairman of the board of trustees of the New York Racing Association, said, "You have to have a hell of an excuse to have an excuse in the Belmont. It's a long way to go."
Vanderbilt is more than a casually interested party: 21 years ago his Native Dancer came back after losing the Derby to win both the Preakness and Belmont. And last Saturday Vanderbilt could take pride in watching Little Current, a great-grandson of Native Dancer, and Jolly Johu, a grandson, finish one-two in the Belmont. Had he not suffered a bumping accident in the Derby 21 years ago, Native Dancer might have wrapped up a Triple Crown of his own, and had Little Current not been bounced around in the early stages of this year's crowded Derby he might now be the 10th Triple Crown winner. Instead, he joins Native Dancer, Nashua and Damascus among Derby losers who fought back in the Preakness and Belmont to top the 3-year-old division.
When Little Current slipped through an almost nonexistent hole on the rail to win the Preakness, his victory was convincing. And yet there were doubters who claimed with logic, "if he hadn't gotten through, he would have had to go very wide and he never would have made it." Even Owner Galbreath belonged to that school, saying on Belmont Day, "When you have to change stride and direction in midstretch, you're doomed."
Some trainers, not completely sold on Little Current because of his in-and-out early-season record, suggested that he might have caught exactly his kind of track, the wet-fast Pimlico strip, in the Preakness, and that on a dry-fast Belmont surface—just the kind Cannonade loves—it might be another story.
Woody Stephens, Cannonade's trainer, felt that way. "I beat Little Current every time we met until he caught that track at Pimlico," he said. "Little Current was stopping in the Blue Grass when I beat him with Judger. Still, who's to say Cannonade won't stop, trying to get a mile and a half." Stephens had other worries, too. Cannonade's Derby and Preakness jockey, Angel Cordero, was found guilty of some rodeo tactics in a pre-Belmont race and was given a suspension that cost him the mount on the Derby winner. After a bothersome period in which Cordero drove around Belmont in his Cadillac telling everyone from the stewards to the manure collectors that he was heading for the Supreme Court to have the verdict reversed, the jockey finally realized that Stephens would stick by the stewards' decision and use Panamanian Jorge Velasquez as his replacement. Velasquez was delighted at his big chance, but spent most of the week figuring out what to say if Cannonade were beaten and he got the blame. That's all right, Jorge. Not Cordero—or even Eddie Arcaro—could have won this Belmont on Cannonade. Just as Stephens half-feared, Cannonade did stop and faded to third.
Everyone had figured the early speed would come from Hudson County, who had run so commendably to be second in the Derby, and Jolly Johu, who had first led and then held on so well to be fourth in the Preakness. They were partly correct. Jolly Johu did set the pace, but Hudson County stumbled slightly coming away from the gate and could never really get in the hunt. Instead, it was Shady Character, usually at his best on the turf, who joined Jolly Johu until Velasquez, noting the slow early tempo, decided to move up sooner than planned with Cannonade. Little Current, meanwhile, was in eighth place, cooling it along the rail, giving his supporters the first twinges of anxiety. But Little Current, even though next to last, was closer to the pace and faster than usual. Earlier, trainer Lou Rondinello had said, "I'm not really worried because I feel that if he has it in a race, he can come from anywhere and win."
And come from anywhere—not quite nowhere—is what he did. When Rivera got into his colt, the response was immediate and authoritative. Cannonade was about to take the lead from Jolly Johu at the top of the stretch, but Little Current was ready to take both of them. "I told my jock to go outside in the stretch and not mess around with tired horses that might be stopping in front of him," said Rondinello. Rivera himself noted, "I got away with going inside once—in the Preakness—but I wasn't about to take a chance on trying it again."
Little Current moved to the outside as they passed the quarter pole; Rivera whipped his mount and the race was over. As his victims faltered in pursuit. Little Current uncorked a 24-second last quarter—the time of the race was a moderate 2:29⅕ more than five seconds slower than Secretariat's record—to open seven lengths on Jolly Johu, who displayed courage and stamina in coming on again in the last strides to nip Cannonade by a nose. The thoroughly exhausted Derby winner had a three-quarter-length margin over Rube the Great. Behind Rube came Kin Run, Shady Character, Hudson County, Sea Songster and Bold and Fancy. As Alfred Vanderbilt had predicted, nobody had an excuse.
Little Current, named for the small town in Ontario where the Galbreaths keep a fishing cabin, is due for a rest until the Aug. 17 Travers at Saratoga. "The greatest thing about his Belmont victory," said Galbreath, "is that he didn't let down all the people who said such nice things about him after the Preakness. There's always pressure on you when you have the favorite in a big race, but honestly, it's not the purse I worry about or the opposition as much as it is people who like racing and who put their confidence in your horse."
Then Galbreath added, "We've all been saying for months how the 3-year-old picture was all mixed up. I wouldn't say it was that confusing right now, would you?"