What Separates the Belmont Stakes from Other Triple Crown Races?

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What Separates the Belmont Stakes from Other Triple Crown Races?
A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Secretariat's statue stands proudly in the Belmont Park paddock.

The Belmont Stakes is the final jewel of horse racing's elusive Triple Crown. The mile-and-a-half contest remains one of the most difficult races for any horse. To win the Belmont, a horse must be the total package of speed, stamina and heart. 

The Belmont Stakes has been home to some of horse racing's greatest triumphs and most heartbreaking defeats. The Triple Crown has been seized and denied in Belmont Park's famously long stretch. Even in years where there is not a Triple Crown on the line, the Belmont Stakes' blanket of carnations remains one of the most sought-after prizes in the sport.

Unlike the Kentucky Derby—which requires an element of luck due to the oversized field—or the Preakness, which, because of the very quick turnaround from the Derby, demands a certain level of toughness and durability, the Belmont Stakes is a strategic race.

For a horse to successfully get the distance, a jockey must be able to maximize their horse's potential, save ground and conserve energy wherever possible. 

Belmont Park is known for its excruciatingly long stretch. Turning for home, it can set a horse up for triumph or defeat if the jockey is not familiar enough with it.

It takes a smart jockey, not just a good one, to win the Belmont Stakes. 

Horses are simply not bred or engineered to excel at the grueling distance of a mile-and-a-half anymore. As public auctions became more popular and profitable, it became clear that the big-money horses were the physically mature, precocious types that would hit the track early and create a rapid return on investment.

Those horses often were not sound enough to withstand the demanding campaign of the Triple Crown or handle such a long distance.

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At this point in their careers, the mile-and-a-half distance is unknown for all of the contenders. It is longer than they have ever gone to that point and farther than most ever will again. As older horses, there are few races beyond a mile-and-a-quarter on the dirt for top-stakes horses. 

All thoroughbred horses officially turn a year older on Jan. 1 regardless of their actual age. Many are born between February and April, though some come even later. As three-year-olds, there can be a huge discrepancy in physical development in the spring between the early and late foals.

By the time they are older, everyone is essentially at the same physical level—but not at this point. That is another factor that makes the Triple Crown, particularly the Belmont Stakes, one of the most difficult races to win.

In addition, it takes a masterful, old-school trainer to prepare a horse to win the Belmont Stakes. For New York-based trainers like the late Bobby Frankel, Nick Zito and Shug McGaughey, the Belmont Stakes is the race to win. It is the epitome of New York racing and a much-desired accomplishment.

When Frankel saddled Empire Maker to deny Funny Cide the Triple Crown in 2003, it was the culmination of a career of patience and horsemanship.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Empire Maker wins the 2003 Belmont Stakes for trainer Bobby Frankel.

There are few things that can make someone look more foolish in under two minutes than a horse. Even if they are bred to handle the distance, sometimes they can't make it. Even if they are training well, sometimes they run poorly.

It takes a special trainer to be able to read between the lines and understand the inner workings of their equine athletes. They are not machines, and each requires a different training regime. The true master trainers of the sport are the ones that can tailor their program to each horse, and those are often the ones that have the most success in the Belmont Stakes.

Though the 2013 installment of the Belmont Stakes will not yield a Triple Crown winner, one thing is for certain: The race is loaded with talented horses with nothing to lose and everything to gain by claiming the third jewel of the Triple Crown as their own. 

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