ELMONT, NY – Secretariat has been on the move in the 2023 edition of the Triple Crown.
Well, a bronze statue of the horse considered by many to be the greatest of all time has been, and you can’t walk into Belmont Park without laying your eyes on it. The larger-than-life piece of history sculpted by renowned artist Jocelyn Russell has gone from Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby to Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness Stakes to a final destination – the final destination of horse racing’s premier series – of New York.
Fifty years ago Friday, Secretariat captured the Triple Crown on these grounds by 31 lengths in a record time of 2:24. This weekend, while that isn’t on the line on Long Island, that statue sets an aura of tradition and emotion all leading up to Saturday night’s 155th edition of the Belmont Stakes (7:02 p.m. ET, FOX). Below, I previewed the race with Chris “The Bear” Fallica!
I arrived to Belmont Park in the 10 a.m. hour on Friday morning, getting a tour of the facility and taking in the 11-race card that serves as the scene-setter ahead of a crowd of over 50,000 expected on Saturday for a 13-race card that’s highlighted by The Test of the Champion.
Watching the horses trot through the paddock with their owners and trainers gave off a calm but intense vibe. Yes, it’s the eve of this event, but there’s a realization from everyone involved that there’s one more sleep until a purse of $1.5 million will be on the line, with the winner coming away with $800,000 and the runner-up claiming $280,000.
The question entering Saturday: Is this Forte’s time? Many fans are excited to watch the brown colt compete after an unfortunate start to his spring. After being scratched from the Kentucky Derby due to an injured hoof, and being held out of the Preakness Stakes as a result, the Mike Repole-owned colt trained by Todd Pletcher is the favorite to win at 5-2. That being said, Forte has not run since April 1, so there’s a mystery as to what we can expect from him. He was being paid close attention to and followed on Friday as he went for a walk. We’ll get to some other questions to answer in a bit.
Going through the concourse of Belmont Park, the smells of popcorn fill the air and on a sunny day in the mid 70s, the Belmont Jewels are beginning to get poured. The official cocktail of the final leg of the Triple Crown includes straight bourbon whiskey, lemonade, pomegranate juice and a lemon twist for garnish. The man in the red jacket and black top hat sounds his trumpet to start the day, and the festivities begin.
What makes the Belmont Stakes different from the other races going on?
It is by far the longest of the Triple Crown races, fittingly provided the longest test as the final obstacle for a horse to achieve ultimate glory, something that has only been achieved 13 times and will carry a five-year drought into next year (last TC: 2018, Justify). It is also the longest of the thoroughbred dirt races. While the Kentucky Derby is the most well known of the three legs of the Triple Crown, there’s no question what the most challenging is. Yes, that’s something the New Yorkers around Belmont Park take a lot of pride in. It’s why Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York plays following the race, paying tribute to the winner for making it here.
In total, the race is a mile and a half – 12 furlongs – in length. By comparison, the Kentucky Derby is at 10 furlongs with the Preakness at 9.5 furlongs.
Speaking of the tradition, the Belmont Stakes is also the oldest of the Triple Crown races, with an event dating back to 1867 at Jerome Park in the Bronx. The event has been held at Belmont Park since 1905.
Walking around the park on Friday, as the races are going on, there’s also preparation for a large increase in crowd to around 50,000 expected on Saturday for the big day. A stage is being built for American DJ Diplo to hold a pre-race concert next to the concourse.
Over a dozen food trucks have pulled into a parking lot to form a village serving up New York delicacies – yes, I’ll be making my way to this on Saturday.
The event staff and TV production crews are going through final preparations for their coverage with multiple sets scattered throughout the facility. FOX Sports is broadcasting the Belmont for the first time in network history.
But as you walk through the facility this year, there’s actually some yellow in the middle of the park. Construction machines have begun work on a complete makeover of the facility after a $455 million loan was approved by the state of New York. While the renovations could be completed by 2026, next year’s Belmont Stakes will not be impacted, according to a spokesperson. The 2025 edition of the race could be moved to Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens or Saratoga Race Track in Saratoga Springs.
For now, the buzz is building for a champion to be crowned on Saturday night, and with Secretariat posters, t-shirts and a special logo displayed everywhere, this final leg of the triple crown feels extra special. Another fun tradition: The winner will be draped with a 40-pound blanket of 700 white carnations, the official flower of the stakes representing love and luck.
Who could be celebrating with carnations on Saturday night? Our betting experts revealed their picks here.
Five other storylines to watch:
1. Bob Baffert is back at Belmont
The legendary trainer is in New York for the final leg of the Triple Crown for the first time since his horse, Justify, captured perfection in 2018. After serving a suspension last year due to his Medina Spirit violation, Baffert has Preakness winner National Treasure at 5-1 heading into Saturday. Jockey John Velazquez has twice won the Stakes and has won seven times at Belmont Park.
2. Brad Cox has a trio of horses running
The 43-year-old trainer from Louisville sets aim on his second Belmont title in three years after accomplishing the feat in 2021 with his horse, Essential Quality. Look out for the 7, Hit Show (10-1), and the 8, Angel of Empire (7-2), on Saturday, both trained by Cox. Angel of Empire jockey Flavien Prat has been on him for his best races, and it’s believed that the horse’s style could fit the challenge of this particular race quite well. The same can be said of Hit Show, who has this on his side: eight of the last 10 horses to win the Belmont Stakes have entered at double-digit odds.
3. A female eyes history on Saturday
A female trainer has never had the champion of the Belmont Stakes. But the 3 horse, jockeyed by Javier Castellano – who rode Mage to the Kentucky Derby win – has been trained by Jena M. Antonucci. She is the 11th female trainer to have a horse at the Belmont Stakes and is trying to become the first to win it. Arcangelo enters at 8-1.
4. Tapit is a theme on Saturday
Luis Saez won his first triple crown race two years ago when taking the Belmont Stakes. Todd Pletcher’s Mo Donegal took home the 2022 title. The two men combine for the Mandy Pope-owned No. 2 horse on Saturday, Tapit Trice, who comes in at 3-1. The horse has been steady, winning as both a stalker and a closer while netting $900,000 over six years. Speaking of Tapit…in many ways, it’s the Tapit Stakes!
5. Never count out Jose Ortiz
Arguably the best rider in the country, Ortiz will be on the No. 1 horse, Tapit Shoes (20-1). While this horse is a longer shot on Saturday, there’s a level of unknown in the idea that he’s never run in a graded stakes race. His style should be suited to the course, and if you’re willing to give Ortiz the benefit of the doubt, there could be some value here in one of your exacta or trifecta bets.
My conclusion through Friday? I can’t wait to see this track packed on Saturday, and to watch the Test of the Champion on Saturday. Between the field, larger-than-life personalities and a golden anniversary of Secretariat being celebrated, the set-up is in place for the curtain to be brought down in dramatic fashion in the final leg of the 2023 Triple Crown.
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