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The Belmont Stakes is the longest and last leg of three races that collectively form the elusive Triple Crown. This 1.5-mile race, nicknamed the “Test of the Champion,” is always held on a Saturday between June 5 and June 11, five weeks after the Kentucky Derby and three weeks after the Preakness. It has become a New York tradition that will mark its 146th running, Saturday, June 7, 2014. The story of the Belmont Stakes goes back to the 19th century following the Civil War, before historic Belmont Park was created. Located in Elmont, NY, both the park and racetrack reflect an entrepreneurial and competitive spirit that attracts crowds by the thousands and Thoroughbreds of legendary status.
The race is named after August Belmont, Sr., (1816-1890) a wealthy, influential Wall Street banker who helped shape America’s Gilded Age. He emigrated from Germany after working his way up from an assistant to handling international business for the House of Rothschild. During the Panic of 1837, the American bank that handled all the Rothschild business in the U.S. failed and Belmont set up his own company in New York to complete the transactions. He and his wife were part of New York society and enjoyed a mansion on Fifth Avenue, a private art collection of more than 100 paintings, a summer home in Newport, RI, and a love of thoroughbred racing.
In 1866, his Wall Street colleague, Leonard W. Jerome, built the Jerome Park Racetrack in the Bronx. The first Belmont Stakes was held there in 1867 and became an annual event until Belmont’s death in 1890. The race was then moved to Morris Park Racecourse in the Bronx where it was held from 1890 through 1904. That location did not attract the number of spectators it had hoped for despite the opulent track and clubhouse. It closed in 1904. The Jerome Park track closed in 1894 and the area became part of the Jerome Park Reservoir for New York City’s water supply.
After the death of Belmont, Sr., the story of the Belmont Stakes continued with his son, August Belmont, Jr., (1853-1924) creating historic Belmont Park. The owner of Morris Park had already made the decision in 1902 to close in 1904. Belmont, Jr. wanted to build the most elaborate track and clubhouse in America and one that could compete with the great racetracks of Europe. He and former Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney found 650 acres on the border of Queens County and Nassau County on Long Island. The area, formerly known as Foster’s Meadow, included a Tudor-Gothic mansion that belonged to a New York attorney. The mansion was purchased to serve as the new park’s Turf and Field Club. Belmont Park opened May 4, 1905. More than 40,000 spectators endured Long Island traffic jams to see the first race.
Only 11 horses have won the three races that form the Triple Crown. The first winner was Sir Barton in 1919. Secretariat won in 1973 by 31 lengths and a world-record time of 2:24 for 1.5 miles. His record still stands. A bronze statue of Secretariat at Belmont Park, Secretariat in Full Stride, was sculpted in 1974 by John Skeaping. The term “triple crown” first appeared in 1923 in a New York Times article by Bryan Field, the paper’s racing columnist. Field used it again in 1930 when he wrote that the Triple Crown had “reached such prominence.” Another columnist, Charles Hatten, of the Daily Racing Form is also credited with using the term in 1930.
Belmont Park is famous for other events besides racing. The Wright Brothers held an international aerial competition in 1910 for 150,000 spectators. The track served as the terminal for the first airmail service between New York and Washington, D.C. in 1918. A benefit for the American Red Cross was held in 1940, and spectators had to buy war bonds to gain admission on Back the Attack Day in 1943. This event raised between $25 and $30 million.
The track was closed for extensive renovation from 1963-67. The old grandstand was declared unsafe and was replaced. The park’s original size of 650 acres was reduced to 445 acres. During the renovation, the Belmont Stakes was held at the Aqueduct Racetrack. The track was also closed in 1911-12 because of a New York State law against racing. Belmont, Jr., was instrumental in getting that law repealed.
The story of the Belmont Stakes includes a look at New York history and personal wealth during the Gilded Age. It is the oldest of the Triple Crown races. Belmont Park has the longest dirt track in the U.S. and is operated by the New York Racing Association, Inc. It is still considered one of the great racetracks of the world.
By Cynthia Collins