NEW YORK — OK, Sunday Silence plays Broadway now. It worked in the sticks but will it play the Palace? Is he a horse for the ages or does he now get flop sweat?
The proposition is simple: Does he light up the city that never sleeps? Or prove once more that there's a broken heart for every light on Broadway?
Does he join Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed and others of the 11 who took Manhattan by storm? Or is his fate to fall back with Alysheba, Carry Back, Kauai King, Canonero II and Northern Dancer, the great disappointment horses of the Triple Crown?
The Belmont is not a race, it's a hoodoo. It's a dry gulcher. It sits and waits for you with cocked shotgun. If you've been lucky, you get shown up here. If you're a super horse, you own New York.
You come here tired, disoriented. You've been vanned, flown, railroaded over half the country. You've paraded in front of bands, waving flags, drifting hot dog wrappers. Your trainer is nervous saddling you, your rider is nervous sitting on you.
And now you get to go a mile and a half in front of the toughest race fans in the country. In New York, they don't say, "Please, darling, just another quarter-mile, that's all!" In New York, they say, "Go ahead and die now, you dog!" Or, "This ain't Kentucky, you plow horse! Who told you you could run?"
They wait in the weeds for you in New York. The race is won by horses named Danzig Connection and Caveat and Celtic Ash and Conquistador Cielo, horses who were not in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Derby winners must feel like a guy who has gone four sets--or 14 rounds--against one opponent and suddenly looks over and sees a fresh newcomer taking over.
Pensive, in 1944, was the first horse to run up against this brick wall. A Calumet colt of outstanding determination, Pensive disposed of his Derby and Preakness fields with dispatch but ran into a fresh, fit Bounding Home in the stretch at the Belmont and came up a half-length short. Before that, every horse who had won the first two legs and gone to the Belmont went on to win the Triple Crown.
In 1958, Tim Tam, the Calumet colt that had Triple Crown written all over him, broke down in the stretch--he finished the race on three legs--and lost to Cavan, an Irish-bred that had skipped the earlier races.
In 1968, racing was spared the first official Triple Crown winner that had not won the Derby when Forward Pass, who had won the Preakness and had been awarded the Derby when the real winner, Dancer's Image, was found to have been illegally medicated, lost the Belmont to Stage Door Johnny, a horse who had skipped the wilds of Kentucky and Maryland.
In 1971, Canonero II, a Kentucky Derby field horse--an entry so little thought of that it is linked in the betting with other horses--startled the racing world by coming through quarantine to win the first two Triple Crown races. But then he ran down the track while Pass Catcher, a 35-1, where-did-he-come-from shot, won the Belmont.
In 1979, Spectacular Bid, the best horse in the country, lost the Belmont to a weeds-layer named Coastal.
What might be even more galling for double winners are the Belmont losses to horses they have soundly whipped in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
In 1961, Carry Back, a poor-but-honest, Horatio Alger-type of horse, didn't even know Sherluck was in the Derby and the Preakness. Sherluck finished fifth in both. But in the Belmont, Sherluck shuffled Carry Back all the way to seventh, where he finished sore and well-beaten.
The Belmont is sparing with its largess. Northern Dancer became more famous as a successful stud than as a racer because he was third in the Belmont to Quadrangle, a horse he had beaten in winning the Derby and the Preakness.
Kauai King humiliated Amberoid in the Derby and the Preakness--Amberoid ran seventh and third in those--but Amberoid went by him like a fast freight in the stretch at the Belmont, and Kauai King faded out of the money.
Two years ago, Alysheba beat Bet Twice in the Derby after almost going to his knees in the stretch, beat him again in the Preakness--and then finished 14 lengths behind him at New York.
Lots of great horses have blown the Derby, then reasserted superiority in the last two races. Which is even sadder than blowing the Belmont. There was, of course, Native Dancer, who lost only one race, the most important of his life. There was Little Current, obviously a Triple Crown horse in 1974 who got shuffled around in a 23-horse rodeo at Kentucky but who won the Preakness and the Belmont by seven lengths. Bimelech probably should have won all three races in 1940 but ran wide all through his Derby that year.
West Coast-campaigned horses have fared poorly in the Triple Crown. Affirmed is the only Santa Anita Derby winner ever to win the Triple Crown. The Belmont, in particular, has been a hall of horrors for sun-belters. Apart from Affirmed, the only Santa Anita Derby winner ever to win the Belmont was Avatar, in 1975.
Can Sunday Silence become the second Santa Anita Derby winner to win the Triple Crown and only the third to win the Belmont?
If you're going to win just one race, make it the Derby. If you're going to win two, you better win the third, too, or you get to be forgotten. The Belmont determines whether you're a statue in the paddock--or just another show that bombed on Broadway and should have closed out of town.