- The Belmont Stakes is the longest Triple Crown race and is known as the “test of champions.”
- The race — and track — hold a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons.
- My best Belmont story took place in 1999 when my father and I won $15,000 and didn’t know it until hours later.
“The 37-year wait is over,” proclaimed track announcer Larry Collmus as American Pharoah swept across the finish line in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, becoming just the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. On June 9, Justify — another Bob Baffert horse — will try to become lucky No. 13.
Since 1919, when Sir Barton was the first to sweep the spring classics, only Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2015) have achieved racing immortality.
Justify is also trying to buck another trend. Only one horse in history has won the Triple Crown with an undefeated record — Seattle Slew. There’s a lot of history at stake at Belmont, and that’s part of the allure and mystique of the track.
For me, Belmont became a special place through my father’s eyes.
Paul Senior and Big Red
Belmont is the true test of a champion, and I have so many memories from going there as a kid, but my father grew up there watching champions.
Of these giants, Secretariat is the best — or at least most famous — horse we’ve ever seen. In 1973, he and Sham were set up for a battle and went at a blistering pace early in the Belmont. I was 1 year old.
My father used to love to tell me the story of that day. He said that people were screaming at Ron Turcotte, the jockey for Secretariat, early because the pace was unbelievably fast for the distance. (The Belmont is 1.5 miles long, making it the longest Triple Crown race.) Then as they hit the far turn, he looked around and saw tears falling down peoples’ faces as track announcer Chic Anderson said those famous words: “He’s moving like a tremendous machine.”
Another great story he told me about Belmont took place in the late ’60s. My father and my mom’s younger brother were getting tips. My grandmother worked at a “sweatshop” where they made dresses, and Rosie, who was sewing next to my mother, happened to be on strike. She also happened to be “chosen” by the unknown character running the place, and he happened to be a horse player. So he would tell Rosie his plays, and she would tell my grandmother Carmela, who then would relay the info to my old man.
After two winners in a row, they were sold. The third tip my grandmother passed on to my father was to bet on a horse named Past President, ridden by Johnny Rotz. My uncle was only 17 at the time, and you had to be at least 18 to get into Belmont back then. So they decided to run all the way to the backside. After the jog around the mile-and-a-half track, they watched with binoculars standing on garbage cans as Past President came across first.
There’s always a way to get a tip.
Check The Account
My favorite Belmont story is from 1999. That year Charismatic, a horse trained by D. Wayne Lukas, was shooting for the Triple Crown. I was in Triple-A playing for the Albuquerque Dukes, and my father was in Sedona, Arizona. Every big race day we’d shoot the breeze on the phone because I respect his opinion — he taught me everything I know.
“Never bet with your heart,” he would always tell me. Well, that day we both loved Lemon Drop Kid as our longshot. He was 25-1, and we both thought he would get the distance.
At the end of the call, he asked about a horse named Vision and Verse trained by an up-and-comer named Bill Mott. He was 50-1. One thing I’ve always learned is to never talk someone off a longshot opinion. My ears are always open, and my father made a good case, so we decided to toss him in our five-horse exacta and trifecta box.
The reason I was in Albuquerque was because I broke my hand early that season, and I was rehabbing — some of my best moments took place on rehab assignments — with the Dukes. Since we weren’t in the same area, we decided to deposit money in my dad’s online account.
We made a $10 dollar exacta box using five horses and boxed them in a trifecta for $4. The total bet was $500.
I was at Albuquerque Sports Stadium the whole day, and unbelievably, the power went out. I went to my manager’s office to try to call my dad, but had no luck. This carries on for a while, and I couldn’t watch the race. To this day it’s the only one I’ve ever missed.
The lights came back on around 6:30 p.m. ET and the race is over, so I took the field. I went back to check the TV, but remember, this is 1999, so there was no real way to find out results in an instant like today. And I wasn’t going into the office to call my dad while the game was going on.
I finally got home, and as soon as I walked into my apartment, the replay of the race was on. I literally dropped my car keys when I saw Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse run first and second — this was a monster number. Charismatic, who was injured after the race, finished third, meaning we hit everything. The trifecta paid more than $5,000 for $2, and the exacta was $1,500 for $2! And I still had not talked to my father.
On May 9 that year, just after the Kentucky Derby, my dad had a heart attack. He was recovering slowly, and the first day his doctor let him bet was Belmont Day, because he didn’t want him to get too excited. At this point I’m worried because he still hasn’t answered the phone, but finally, I get him on the line.
I asked what was going on and he told me:
“I was nervous I would get too excited, so I took some extra medication and slept through the whole day.”
“Did you see the results or watch the race?”
“Check the account.”
Then I go on and tell him my story. We must have laughed for an hour, and my dad’s heart healed pretty quickly for that night. We always joke about hitting for more than $15,000 together that day and we both never watched the race. Maybe that’s an omen.