The Race that Changed the Belmont Stakes

The Road to the Belmont Stakes had been pretty straightforward for a number of decades until one trainer’s decision and his belief in his horse created a whole new strategy on how to get there. It is a strategy that has since proven successful on a number of occasions and will be utilized by several trainers this year. ~ Steve Haskin

The Race that Changed the Belmont Stakes

By Steve Haskin

Here is a question for you. Name the trainer who changed the face of the Belmont Stakes and brought it into a new era? A) Bob Baffert with three victories and two Triple Crown winners; B) Todd Pletcher with three victories, including the first filly to win in 102 years; C) Wayne Lukas with four winners, including three in a row; D) Nick Zito with two of the biggest upsets in the history of the race, along with seven seconds and three thirds; E) Woody Stephens with a record five consecutive victories.

Hmm, it’s got to be A, B, D, or E, right? Actually no, it is C. That’s right, Wayne Lukas, with four nondescript victories by Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Editor’s Note, and Commendable, has had the greatest impact on “The Test of the Champion.” Not only were his four wins unremarkable, Thunder Gulch’s time of 2:32 was the slowest in 25 years and slowest of a fast track since 1944. And Lukas’s first three victories in succession came before record low crowds, one even plummeting to a dismal 37,171.

So what could Lukas have done to make such a profound impact on the race? It must first be established that back in the day when horses actually competed in two or often all three legs of the Triple Crown the majority of Belmont winners ran in the first two legs. Then Woody Stephens came along and won three of his five Belmonts with horses who did not run in either of the first two legs. But that strategy didn’t hold up. In six of the next nine years the Belmont winner competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

Then in 2000, Lukas accomplished something that had never been done before and did it mind-boggling fashion. When his colt Commendable, who was a $575,000 yearling purchase, finished 17th, beaten 26 lengths, in the Kentucky Derby, Lukas had the audacity to run him back in the Belmont Stakes five weeks later and without a prep in between.

Even Commendable’s owner Bob Lewis was skeptical and questioned Lukas’ decision. “Wayne, are you sure you want to do this?” Lewis asked by phone the Tuesday before the race. Lukas, always the optimist, told him, “We have no grandiose plans, Bob, but believe me, this horse will not be an embarrassment to you. Just get on the plane and come.”

Lukas’ wife at the time, Laura, also questioned such an unorthodox move. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” she asked him. “Are you being realistic here? ”Lukas’s answer was straight and to the point. “We’ve made a living entering where we don’t belong,” he told her.

The morning of the race, Lukas was still feeling good about his decision. “The worst thing you can do as a trainer is lose confidence,” he said. “You have to believe you’re going in the right direction. You will find that as soon as you set your goal – no matter how lofty it is – people are going to start telling you that you’ll never make it; that it’s just a pipe-dream. We have a plaque on the wall of all our stables that addresses the subject of luck: ‘Success is a matter of luck. Ask any Loser.’”

With Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus and Preakness winner Red Bullet passing the Belmont, Commendable was able to control the early pace and defeated Derby runner-up Aptitude at odds of almost 19-1. Lukas had pulled it off again.

“Wait a minute,” other trainers thought, “if Lukas can win the Belmont Stakes with a mediocre horse who had finished far up the track in the Derby and without giving him a race in between, why can’t I do it?”

And so, the new Belmont Stakes was born. Forget running in the Preakness, forget running in the Peter Pan Stakes, and certainly forget kissing the remainder of the Triple Crown goodbye because of a bad performance in the Derby. Just regroup like Lukas did and go straight for the Belmont Stakes.

It was unheard of at the time, but since the 2000 Belmont, Lukas’ unorthodox move has become a routine game plan for many trainers. One by one they followed, going straight from the Derby to the Belmont, despite finishing out of the money at Churchill Downs. Birdstone won the Belmont directly after finishing eighth, beaten almost 16 lengths, in the Derby. Jazil won the Belmont after finishing fourth, beaten more than nine lengths, in the Derby. Summer Bird won the Belmont after finishing sixth, beaten 13 lengths, in the Derby. Palace Malice won the Belmont after finishing 12th, beaten 13 ½ lengths, in the Derby. Union Rags won the Belmont after finishing seventh, beaten 7 ½ lengths, in the Derby. Creator won the Belmont after finishing 13th, beaten more than 18 lengths in the Derby. Tapwrit won the Belmont after finishing sixth, beaten more than 10 lengths, in the Derby.

Just look at the Hall of Fame trainers that have followed Lukas and succeeded – Todd Pletcher twice, Nick Zito, and Steve Asmussen, as well as veteran trainers Kiaran McLaughlin and Michael Matz. In fact, Pletcher, who served as Lukas’ assistant back in the ‘90s, almost did it two other times when Dunkirk finished 11th, beaten 19 lengths, in the Derby and was second next out in the Belmont to the aforementioned Summer Bird, and Stay Thirsty finished 12th, beaten more than 11 lengths, in the Derby and then finished second next out in the Belmont, beaten only three-quarters of a length at 16-1.

So you can clearly see how Lukas has changed the entire thought process when it comes to running a horse in the Belmont Stakes straight from the Derby, regardless of how poorly the horse ran at Churchill Downs.

To demonstrate how common that has become, this year we have four horses who were up the track in the Derby, going straight to the Belmont – Rock Your World, who finished 17th, beaten 24 lengths; Brooklyn Strong, who finished 15th, beaten 16 lengths; Bourbonic, who finished 13th, beaten 16 lengths; and Known Agenda, who finished ninth, beaten almost 11 lengths. That’s two more Pletcher horses – Bourbonic and Known Agenda – who will try it. Even though Essential Quality ran a solid race in the Derby, he did finish fourth, so that makes five horses who were out of the money in the Derby going directly to the Belmont Stakes. Another horse, Keepmeinmind, who finished seventh, beaten 8½ lengths in the Derby, had been listed as a possible Belmont starter, but his trainer Robertino Diodoro said via text, “As of right now we are not running.”

Unlike in Lukas’s case back in 2000, no one questions this move anymore. It has become woven into the fabric of the Belmont Stakes by a man who has rewritten the book on training in so many ways. Before leaving the track that evening and indulging in a dinner of chicken tenders and french fries from room service at the Garden City Hotel, Lukas walked up to  Commendable’s stall and liked what he saw from the colt who had proven him right and silenced the doubters. “He’s right in that feed tub,” he said. “Bless his heart.”

It was a touching moment between a trainer and his horse after a classic race that had little fanfare or significance in the grand scheme of things. But no one, not even Lukas, could know at the time that because of that victory the Belmont Stakes would never be the same.

On Thursday, June 3, look out for our final Triple Crown handicapping/analysis column. This looks to be a very wide-open Belmont Stakes, where my No. 1-ranked Derby horse Rock Your World will seek redemption after his horrendous start at Churchill Downs. And of course we have the Preakness winner Rombauer and a two hemisphere-pronged attack by Godolphin with Essential Quality and Rebel’s Romance. It should be a fun race to handicap. See you then!


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