Ranking the 10 Biggest Upsets in Belmont Stakes History
The Belmont Stakes is traditionally referred to as the Test of Champions and for good reason. At Belmont Park, some of the greatest champions in horse racing history have been crowned, while others have tasted the bitterest defeat.
Horse racing fans are familiar with disappointment. Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, there have been 13 horses to ship to Belmont Park with the hopes of completing the Triple Crown. Of those 13, only 12 actually made it into the starting gate, and all went home empty-handed.
Here is a look at the greatest upsets in Belmont Stakes history, ranked in a combination of long odds, sheer shock value and with how much of a lock the favorite had seemed.
10. Touch Gold, 1997
The Favorite: Silver Charm, the popular winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes seemed nearly unbeatable. Known for his grit and determination, the big gray colt was a lock to win.
The Spoiler: Touch Gold, the second choice on the tote board, loomed as a major threat after a terrible trip in the Preakness Stakes.
How It Happened: Under a perfect, strategic ride by Chris McCarron, Touch Gold made his move from just off the pace and took a wide path as he approached Silver Charm, who was engaged in a battle with his longtime rival Free House. Touch Gold rallied past and won by three-quarters of a length, and Silver Charm never saw him coming.
9. Victory Gallop, 1998
The Favorite: Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby as a minor long shot and in the Preakness Stakes was the second choice. In both races, he defeated an up-and-coming colt with a big closing kick, Victory Gallop.
The Spoiler: Victory Gallop, after a pair of runner-up efforts, was poised to turn the tables on his rival. At odds of 4-1, he was not a long shot, but nonetheless he handed Real Quiet a crushing upset.
How It Happened: At the top of the stretch, Real Quiet was four lengths in front and looked like he was going to gallop into the history books. Then, with ground-eating strides, Victory Gallop cut into that lead until the two were neck-and-neck. After the horses exchanged several bumps, Victory Gallop eked out a hard-fought win by a nose.
8. Commendable, 2000
The Favorite: There was not a Triple Crown on the line in 2000, but Aptitude was tabbed as the favorite after a runner-up effort to the heralded Fusaichi Pegasus in the Kentucky Derby.
The Spoiler: Commendable had never hit the board against stakes competition. He broke his maiden in his first start and then was no better than fourth in any of his subsequent six starts against winners, including a 17th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.
How It Happened: Commendable contested the lead early, seized command and never looked back. Under a textbook ride by Pat Day, he coasted to a 1 1/2-length victory at odds of nearly 19-1. It ranks as one of D. Wayne Lukas's greatest upsets in a great career of long-shot wins.
7. Tonalist, 2014
The Favorite: California Chrome had risen from obscurity to become a fan favorite, and it seemed like his Cinderella story would continue into the history books.
The Spoiler: Tonalist, a fresh face after skipping the previous two jewels of the Triple Crown, was the fifth choice on the tote board at odds of 9-1.
How It Happened: Weary from the rigors of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, California Chrome simply came up flat. When he began to spin his wheels at the top of the stretch, the scene was set for an upset. Tonalist came flying late to overtake the front-running long shot Commissioner and win by a head.
6. Ruler on Ice, 2011
The Favorite: Though there was no Triple Crown on the line, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom returned in the Belmont Stakes after losing the Preakness to Shackleford. Both colts were short prices for their rematch in the Belmont.
The Spoiler: Ruler On Ice had never won a stakes race prior to the Belmont Stakes, and his odds reflected his resume. He went off at nearly 25-1.
How It Happened: A lot went wrong for Animal Kingdom in the Belmont. He stumbled so badly leaving the gate that it was remarkable that jockey John Velazquez stayed aboard. That, combined with a sloppy track, blew the doors open. Ruler On Ice and Shackleford dueled for the lead early, and once Ruler On Ice prevailed, he splashed home to a big upset victory.
5. Bet Twice, 1987
The Favorite: Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby in heroic fashion after rival Bet Twice caused him to clip heels and nearly fall to the ground. The colt also won the Preakness over that adversary.
The Spoiler: Bet Twice, second in both previous Triple Crown races, was ready to step into the spotlight on his own.
How It Happened: At odds of 9-1, Bet Twice was overlooked despite his consistency. As the heavy favorite at 4-5 odds, Alysheba was unable to recapture the form he had showed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Bet Twice, without the pressure of his familiar rival, won by an emphatic 14 lengths.
4. Lemon Drop Kid, 1999
The Favorite: Charismatic, the former claimer-turned-Kentucky Derby winner, had already done the impossible and won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
The Spoiler: A Grade 1 winning juvenile, Lemon Drop Kid had struggled to hit his best stride as a sophomore. After finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby, he turned in an average effort to finish third in the Peter Pan Stakes.
How It Happened: Bob Baffert had entered his superstar filly, Silverbulletday, to take on the boys, and she and Charismatic hooked up to slug it out early on the front end. He fought gamely but faded to third, while long shots Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse swept past him. Charismatic was pulled up with a broken leg just strides after the wire in one the most memorable and heartbreaking moments in Triple Crown history.
3. Da' Tara, 2008
The Favorite: Big Brown had been the dominant winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Despite rumors of hoof problems that plagued the colt leading up to the race, he was the heavy favorite and seemed unbeatable.
The Spoiler: People are probably still asking themselves where Da' Tara came from. With only a maiden victory to his credit, he was second against minor stakes company prior to the Belmont. He was the longest shot on the board at 38-1.
How It Happened: Kent Desormeaux gave Big Brown what was a highly criticized ride and ultimately pulled the colt up at the top of the stretch. With the favorite out of contention, Da' Tara was loose on the lead and stole the race by 5 1/4 lengths.
2. Birdstone, 2004
The Favorite: Smarty Jones was undefeated, and that perfection seemed like a lock to continue. The chestnut colt was a fan favorite and packed the house at Belmont Park.
The Spoiler: Birdstone, a homebred for horse racing matriarch Marylou Whitney, was a Grade 1 winning juvenile. His sophomore season had been less noteworthy with only an allowance race and two poor efforts against top stakes company. He went off at 36-1.
How It Happened: The question will always remain: Did Stewart Elliott move Smarty Jones too soon? There was significant race riding in the Belmont Stakes and the other jockeys, particularly Jerry Bailey on Eddington and Gary Stevens on Rock Hard Ten. As Stewart Elliott told the Washington Post, the pressure on the pace proved too much.
"I thought if I could get a clear lead, maybe he'd relax," the veteran rider said. "I was planning on getting away with an easy eighth or quarter [of a mile], but it didn't happen."
Both veterans took it to Smarty Jones early, likely at the cost of their own success. Smarty Jones held a tenuous lead at the top of the stretch, but Birdstone rapidly closed the gap and won by a length.
Author's note: Having been at the rail by the finish line that day, I have never heard a grandstand go silent like it did when Birdstone won before or since.
1. Sarava, 2002
The Favorite: War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was the heavy favorite heading into the gate of the Belmont Stakes. His connections? Jockey Victor Espinoza and Bob Baffert. Sound familiar?
The Spoiler: Sarava was a bay colt who began his career in Europe and then broke his maiden stateside as a juvenile. Prior to the Belmont Stakes, he won the first stakes race of his career: the ungraded Sir Barton Stakes. He went into the gate as the longest shot on the board at 70-1.
How It Happened: War Emblem stumbled to his knees at the start, and at that point, the hope for a Triple Crown was gone. Between a tough Triple Crown campaign and that adversity, it was too much to overcome as he finished eighth. Sarava was forwardly placed early and resiliently wore down the talented Medaglia d'Oro to post the biggest upset in modern Belmont Stakes history.