The ending of the 123rd running of the Belmont Stakes last Saturday was quick and clean—a classic of its kind, in fact, with leather whips flashing in the sun, the crowd howling and surging toward the rail and two grand-looking thoroughbreds, one a chestnut and the other a bay, straining and stretching wearily for the wire.
It was, for 15 seconds, the perfect finale of an imperfect season, a finish that defined the breed and all that it was ever meant to be. After months of horses sparring through dozens of prep races, after weeks of their jousting and parrying through the traveling road show that is the Triple Crown, the resolving drama unfolded suddenly in the final 220 yards of the Belmont, the race that is the grand-daddy of them all.
On the inside was Hansel, who had won the Preakness on May 18 by a smashing seven lengths after running a disappointing 10th as the tepid favorite in the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Now, running with his nose up and his head cocked slightly to the right, Hansel was leading the 11-horse Belmont field by 2½ lengths as he raced past the eighth pole in midstretch. Jockey Jerry Bailey was flailing on him lefthanded with the whip, and the colt, his ears swept back, was drifting out, beginning to weaken visibly. At 1½ miles, the Belmont is the longest and most searching of the Triple Crown races, and Hansel, a son of Woodman, whose bloodlines are questionable for siring stayers, appeared to be racing beyond the outer reaches of his pedigree.
So Bailey was bouncing and banging on the colt. "I asked him, but near the eighth pole there was no more acceleration left," Bailey said later. "The heart and the will were there, but he couldn't go any faster. He was trying as hard as he could possibly try and I really believe the last half mile his heart got him home."
Out in the middle of the track, bearing down on Hansel in a last desperate run, was Strike the Gold, who had won the Kentucky Derby with a flourish by almost two lengths but came up inexplicably empty in the Preakness, finishing sixth. Whatever had happened to Strike the Gold at Pimlico, it was all behind him by the time he got to the eighth pole at Belmont Park. Charging on the outside, he was cutting into Hansel's lead, with jockey Chris Antley slashing at his colt from the left side. Hansel's lead was two lengths. Then one and a half. Then a length. Then three quarters. Then a half.
The Derby winner was chasing the Preakness winner.
Antley could not take his eyes off Hansel. "You know how you sometimes stare so hard to make something happen?" said Antley, his eyes widening. "I was starin' hard at Jerry's horse, tryin' to make him come back to me. I could see that his horse was getting tired, but so was mine.... But I kept starin' and starin'." And Hansel kept coming back to Strike the Gold. Upstairs in the clubhouse box seats, Nick Zito, the trainer of Strike the Gold, was pounding on the railing in front of his box and screaming a chant above the thunderous din of the crowd: "Come on, champion! Come on, champion!"
The Derby winner was running down the Preakness winner.
This was what Antley had come to do. And this, of course, was what Bailey had come to fear since the moment that Hansel, running bug-eyed against the bit, had pulled him to the lead as the horses swept out of the backstretch and into the far turn. More was at stake here than the $417,480 winner's purse. Under the Triple Crown Challenge scoring system, which allots points for finishes in each of the series' three races, the two colts were tied for a bonus of $1 million. In fact, if Hansel, Strike the Gold or Mane Minister, who finished third in both the Derby and Preakness, were to win the Belmont Stakes, he would automatically earn the $1 million jackpot.
Through the early fractions, Corporate Report, with Hansel less than two lengths behind, had buzzed through the first half mile in :46⅗ good time. Strike the Gold was merely cantering along, some 16 lengths off the lead. Hansel rushed past the three-quarter mark in 1:11⅗ lively for the distance, and at the far turn, as he clicked off the mile in 1:36⅗ realistic time, the crowd began stirring. Far behind him, Strike the Gold had taken to the high ground, and now he was sweeping quickly past horses.
The chase was on. A roar went up from the horseplayers as they broke from the great cavern of the Belmont grandstand and ran down to the rail. The place began to rock and roll. And not for the first time on this day. Less than an hour earlier, in the $500,000 Nassau County Handicap, the fifth race in the newly christened American Championship Racing Series for older horses, the crowd had witnessed a surpassing exhibition of speed and stretch-running power. It began when jockey Gary Stevens foolishly let Farma Way, the victor in the recent Pimlico Special, get sucked into a suicidal speed duel with Jolie's Halo—six furlongs in 1:08[4/5]!—that was like watching two gulls fly into a jet engine. It ended when Jolie's Halo bled from the exertion and was eased; Farma Way unraveled in the stretch and finished third; and Festin, a stretch runner par excellence, came blowing off the pace to win the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile race by seven, in a blazing 1:46[3/5].
So everyone was suitably primed for Strike the Gold, the 2-to-1 favorite, to run down Hansel, the co-second choice at 4 to 1. All week long the consuming questions had been: Why had Strike the Gold, coming off his Derby triumph, performed so poorly in the Preakness? And why had Hansel looked like Seattle Slew in the Preakness only two weeks after bombing in the Derby? No one really knew, of course, and those two unanswered questions lay at the heart of the prerace uncertainty. Beyond that loomed the most ancient of Belmont Stakes inquiries: Which horse had the guts and stamina to go the fastest mile and a half?
For Frank Brothers, the trainer of Hansel, that imponderable troubled him far more than the prospect of his colt's running without Lasix, the antibleeding medication that the bay had been using since the Florida Derby on March 16, but is not allowed in New York. "We have been monitoring him all winter and I feel good about bringing him to New York," said Brothers, three days before the race. "The jury's out on the whole field as far as the distance is concerned. No one knows who can go that far."
Except for Zito. On Thursday morning he stood outside his barn at Belmont and said of Strike the Gold, a son of Alydar, "My horse is bred to go that far. He's been buckin' and kickin' since he got back home from the Preakness. He didn't run at all there. But he'll be here on Saturday, the real Strike the Gold. Believe me. He is still the Kentucky Derby champion and Belmont Park—well, it's home, and no one beats him at home."
In the end, Zito was only two jumps short of the truth. Antley never stopped staring, trying to bring Hansel back, and he never stopped riding, either, as he pumped and pressed his colt toward the wire. Bailey said he heard nothing in the stretch drive, not even the gathering thunder of the crowd as Strike the Gold shaved Hansel's margin to a neck, and he didn't know another horse was there until he glanced to his right and saw the Gold's shadow catching him on the outside.
Bailey pushed one last time. The two horses swept as a team under the wire, with Hansel beating Strike the Gold by a diminishing head in 2:28 flat. Again, Mane Minister was third, for a record third time. Zito gasped at the last jump; he knew his colt had fallen short. "Ohhhhhh...." he groaned.
Brothers came floating to the winner's circle. "This is the greatest moment of my career," he said.
Indeed, Hansel had done all he needed to do. Suddenly, he was not only the handsomest 3-year-old of his year—with his neat ears, masculine jaw, dished face and very bold eye, he looks like a finely penciled Arabian—but he was also the ablest runner of his generation. Which left Hansel's owner, Joe Allbritton, a diminutive Houston businessman who has sunk millions into the game, with the horse he had waited a lifetime for.
"What a great experience!" Allbritton declared. "Only question I had, when Strike the Gold came at him, was whether he had enough gas in the tank."
Allbritton answered his own question. "He had just enough gas. He ran out at the wire." Then the owner sipped at a long-stemmed glass of bubbly and said, "My, that was fun...."