Most of the owners of the nine 3-year-olds in last week's 107th running of the Belmont Stakes were holding cautious but optimistic court while feasting from a sumptuous buffet that the track provides on Belmont Day. Among them was Arthur A. Seeligson Jr., the 54-year-old San Antonio oil investor whose tricky yellow, orange, brown and white silks have been carried this spring by his impressive chestnut colt Avatar. "If this was a horse show," joked Seeligson, "we'd win the blue. But a mile-and-a-half race is another matter. Still, I've brought in three dry holes this year, so I figure this might be our day."
The majority of the bettors in the crowd of 60,321 didn't see it that way. They went big, as expected, on Foolish Pleasure, who had won the Kentucky Derby and then lost a somewhat controversial Preakness to Master Derby. And they also bet surprisingly heavily on Prince Thou Art, who since a memorable victory over Foolish Pleasure in the Florida Derby has not finished better than third. But Avatar was ignored, so much so that when he sprang from the gate into the demanding world of a mile-and-a-half race his odds were a fat 13 to 1.
But once the gate opened, the combination of Avatar's breeding and guts, the confident training of Tommy Doyle and a spectacular display of horsemanship by Jockey Bill Shoemaker was enough to bring the Seeligson team victory by a narrowing neck over Foolish Pleasure. For 43-year-old Shoemaker, who in his 26 years of race-riding has amassed purses totaling some $55 million and has had close to 6,900 winners, including more than 100 $100,000 races (all world records), his fifth Belmont Stakes victory was a pure and exquisite exhibition of the professional jockey at his very best.
One false move by the mighty little man would have given Foolish Pleasure the victory, and with it, most likely, a lock on the 1975 3-year-old championship for Colts. But Avatar's win divided the Triple Crown three ways and confirmed at least two earlier judgments. One is that this crop of 3-year-olds is indeed a good, solid, healthy and competitive one. A second is that they are going to continue to give racegoers some highly interesting races late in the season—the Travers at Saratoga, for example, and the Marlboro Cup and Woodward at Belmont in the fall. That's when these youngsters may experience the dubious pleasure of tackling the older horses, notably Forego, the 1974 Horse of the Year. And maybe they'll meet a lady named Ruffian, too.
There is a natural fascination in every running of the Belmont, for it is always the first time that any of its entrants have been asked to go 12 furlongs, a distance far more popular in England, Ireland and on the Continent than in America. And last Saturday's renewal had an added sparkle because all the chief contenders from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were back for Round Three. As LeRoy Jolley, who trains Foolish Pleasure, said, "Usually the Belmont comes up with one or two standouts and not much else. This year it isn't that way at all. You've got six Derby winners [Florida, Louisiana, California, Kentucky, Santa Anita and Jersey] who have survived the winter and spring races, plus that Burch man." The last reference was to a colt by Ribot named Nalees Rialto who is trained by Elliott Burch for Mrs. George M. Humphrey and Paul Mellon. Burch had already won three Belmonts (with Sword Dancer, Quadrangle and Arts and Letters), and he said during Belmont Week, "Nalees Rialto reminds me somewhat of Arts and Letters, and I think he's got some ability."
All of the owners felt they belonged in the Belmont and had a decent shot at winning it. Said John Russell, who trains Singh for Cynthia Phipps and Hal Price Headley Jr., "This colt had a rough trip and some excuses in the Preakness, in which he finished sixth. But he ran back so well in winning the Jersey Derby that we've got to give him a chance. This is one of those years when a lot of colts have a chance, Singh included."
Prince Thou Art's trainer and owner were not exuding confidence, but they were not gloomy, either. Trainer Lou Rondinello had to admit that the son of Hail to Reason and the champion mare Primonetta "wasn't himself in Kentucky, where he ran third in the Blue Grass and sixth in the Derby, and was only about 75% of himself in the Preakness, in which he finished fourth. But now he's much better and should improve with the blinkers he's been using in his Belmont works. He's just had the two best works of his career, so it gives us some hope." Added Owner John Gal-breath, "If Prince Thou Art runs back to his Florida Derby, he might easily win the Belmont. He's certainly bred right, and some of these others may not want that kind of distance."
Avatar was stabled in the King Ranch barn during his Belmont Park stay, and the Santa Anita Derby winner drew more admirers every morning. Trainer Doyle was the exemplar of visiting cordiality when he said, "Belmont Park has a consistently fine surface. It has always been that way, and it is a pleasure to be here." When asked if he felt he was working Avatar hard, Doyle said, "If the colt is working too hard I'm not aware of it. I hope he's ready. If he's not, it's too late."
And, of course, it wasn't. Avatar and Belmont Day meshed beautifully. If, however, the Belmont had been run a day earlier, on Friday, June 6, instead of Saturday, June 7, there might have been the kind of disaster only the U.S. Coast Guard could cope with. A cloudburst hit the track Friday afternoon, and after the fourth race the flooding around the five-eighths pole was so deep that the rest of the card was canceled. Superintendent Joe King's track maintenance crew worked until 10 that night spreading sand on the washed-out areas, and the next morning, after more work, the nation's only mile-and-a-half track was officially labeled "fast." But by post time—5:39 p.m.—it was neither fast nor even wet-fast. It was more "dead" than "alive," a condition that meant only the fittest of horses could make the long tour a winning one.
The Belmont walking ring before the race attracted the largest crowd in years, and a few of the spectators narrowly avoided a rush trip to the First Aid Room when Singh tried to run his race there instead of on the main track. The last male offspring of the celebrated Bold Ruler bucked and kicked as though he was being loaded into the chute at the Calgary Stampede. He hung one hind leg over the paddock railing, not the best thing for an athlete warming up in any sport. He kicked his stable pony and made menacing passes at the spectators. By the time he got to the starting gate he looked as if he had just stepped out of the shower.
What little energy remained in Singh was quickly spent early in the running of the Belmont. When the gates opened, it was Diabolo, the California Derby winner, who shot to the lead under Laffit Pincay, with Singh right behind him. That consistent campaigner Master Derby was right there in third place, and Shoe had Avatar fourth and in perfect position on the outside. Foolish Pleasure was back in sixth, while Prince Thou Art, as expected, was last. Doyle felt pleased as he watched Avatar settle into his long, easy stride. Later he said, "The break for us has always been most important, and after Shoe got position I wasn't really worried."
Seeligson was already smiling—a little. "Every time Avatar gets off to a good start," he said after the race, "he runs well. In the Blue Grass and Preakness he had bad starts and ran badly. In the Derby he broke well and ran well, and I will always believe he would have won the Derby if he hadn't gotten involved in that bumping business with Diabolo. Today, in the Belmont, he broke perfectly, and it gave me confidence right away."
Diabolo led the way up the backstretch by two lengths over Master Derby after Singh tired and was out of the hunt. Pincay had wanted to lay back in second or third, but, as he said, "Diabolo was just too full of run and I couldn't get him to relax on the lead."
After Diabolo's early fractions—the quarter in :23⅘ the half in :48, six furlongs in 1:12[2/5] and the mile in 1:36[3/5]—even champion Jockey Pincay could not keep up the struggle. Now it was Master Derby, under young Darrel McHargue, who took over and rolled the mile and a quarter in 2:02—the precise time in which this year's Kentucky Derby was run—but he was only half a length ahead of Avatar, and there was still a quarter of a mile to go. Foolish Pleasure was on the move and about to take over third place from the tiring Diabolo. Prince Thou Art was moving up to seventh place, but never posed a real threat.
"Between the quarter pole and the eighth pole Master Derby ran out of gas," noted Shoemaker afterwards, "and when he did, he left me on the lead, which isn't where I wanted to be that soon. Avatar is a colt who likes to loaf when he gets to the front, and I knew we still had a long way to go."
At the eighth pole, with a length lead over Master Derby, who was no longer a serious threat, Avatar was challenged by Foolish Pleasure, coming on with his typical late and powerful surge. Shoe switched his whip to his left hand, but Avatar didn't respond, so he went back to right-handed whipping as Foolish Pleasure slowly bore down on him. "I was just hoping," said Shoe, "that the wire would come up when it did. It came up just in time."
And so Avatar won, by a neck. For those who felt that Foolish Pleasure would have won if Jacinto Vasquez had moved a mite sooner, it should be noted that the Derby winner didn't gain at all on Avatar from the quarter pole to the 16th pole. Then he suddenly dug in and went after him. That certainly was not the jock's fault; it was simply that the colt would not run on his own until it was too late. Two jumps past the wire Foolish Pleasure was in front, but two jumps past the wire isn't where the winner's purse of $116,160 was. Neither LeRoy Jolley nor Vasquez found excuses. "We were just a little late," said Jolley. "He had good position all the way and the pace to go with it." Vasquez concurred: "I had dead aim on the leader from the three-eighths pole but just couldn't catch up."
Some 3½ lengths behind Foolish Pleasure came Master Derby, followed by Diabolo, Prince Thou Art, Singh, Just the Time, Nalees Rialto and Syllabus. The winner's time of 2:28[1/5] was laughed at by those who remembered Secretariat's track record performance of 2:24 in 1973, but shouldn't have been. Only three other Belmonts have been run faster.
Avatar, now possessor of five victories in 12 races this year, is another fine son of Graustark, who has produced, among his 18 stakes winners, Key to the Mint, Jim French and the European classic winner Caracolero. Avatar is out of the Mount Marcy mare Brown Berry, a stakes winner herself. If he doesn't go back west to Hollywood Park and Del Mar this summer, Avatar will find some interesting rivals in New York. Undefeated Ruffian—called by some veteran horsemen the best filly in history, which takes in an awful lot of territory—will probably tackle the colts before the end of the year, if not in the Travers, then possibly in the Marlboro Cup or the Woodward. And in her own division Ruffian may find competition for the first time in her undefeated career when she faces Sarsar, who beat a field of colts in the Withers. But their meeting is not likely to come about until the Gazelle at Belmont on Aug. 27.
That's the future. Right now, the word is Avatar. As Doyle explained last winter, "Avatar comes from Hindu mythology. It has to do with reincarnation, the descent of a god in a physical form." Seeligson got to the point quicker. "Avatar means the object of great admiration," he said.
At 13 to 1, Avatar was some object of admiration at Belmont last week. "It made up," chuckled Seeligson, "for those three dry wells."