Star-Studded Belmont Weekend Closes Out Triple Crown

You’re not going to find any inspiring back stories this week. Instead we provide a potpourri of subjects, including a brief look at the Belmont, an overview of the star-studded weekend, racing’s newest potential superstar, a look back in history, and some pedigree tidbits. So there is a little something for everyone. ~ Steve Haskin

Star-studded Belmont Weekend Closes Out ’22 Triple Crown

By Steve Haskin


It was December 4, 2021, New York racing’s final weekend of important stakes before winter racing takes over. It was also trainer Todd Pletcher’s last opportunity to win major 2-year-old stakes up North before heading down to Florida.

It was a bright sunny day with temperatures reaching the high 40s. In the eighth race, the Remsen Stakes, and the ninth race, the Demoiselle Stakes, both at the lengthy distance of 1 1/8 miles, Pletcher was unveiling two of his promising 2-year-olds, Mo Donegal and Nest, respectively. Pletcher is one trainer who likes those nine-furlong races late in the year for his juveniles in order to give them a solid foundation before embarking on the road to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

Pletcher had won the Remsen twice and even had his 2021 Derby contender Known Agenda break his maiden going 1 1/8 miles before finishing third in the Remsen. Pletcher owned the Demoiselle, winning it six times, including the previous year’s running with Malathaat, who would go on to win the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama Stakes.

In the 2021 Remsen, Mo Donegal was able to eke out a nose decision over the promising Zandon, while Nest won the Demoiselle in similar fashion scoring by a neck. Six months later, Mo Donegal and Nest would finish first and second, respectively in the Belmont Stakes in one of the most impressive training feats in the history of the Test of the Champion.

Will we remember Pletcher’s feat more than witnessing the Cinderella story of Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike? It has been learned from NBC’s Kenny Rice that the colt got a good deal of sand and small rocks in his eyes, possibly going into the first turn, that had to be cleaned out by the veterinarian after the race. Will his tale either come to a quick and disappointing end or simply put on hold for a while until the colt and his team can regroup and attempt to continue the story at a later date? 

That remains to be seen but on this year’s Belmont Stakes day, Goliath got his revenge on David and there was little back story that would even remotely come close to evoking the emotions everyone felt following the 80-1 shocker at Churchill Downs.

But is it possible that Pletcher’s Belmont coup was not even the highlight of the day that saw a cavalcade of racing’s brightest stars compete?

Three weeks after the Remsen and Demoiselle, some 3,000 miles away at Santa Anita, trainer John Sadler was unleashing a potential freak of a racehorse named Flightline, owned by racing’s most famous grape growers, the Hronis brothers, who had already made a major splash on racing. But even winning the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Accelerate would have to take a back seat to what racing fans across the country would witness with this budding talent in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes.

California fans had already seen the $1 million son of Tapit demolish a maiden field by 13 ¼ lengths and an allowance field by 12 ¾ lengths, earning outrageous Beyer speed figures of 105 and 114. Now he was facing Grade 1 company and racing without Lasix for the first time. Amazingly, you couldn’t tell the difference between the Malibu and his first two, as he once again annihilated his opponents, winning by 11 ½ lengths eased up in a virtual canter, with jockey Flavien Prat never moving his hands and earning a 118 Beyer and putting together back-to-back Thoro-Graph numbers in an unheard of negative-5.

Following the race I sent a one-word text message to Kosta Hronis that read simply “Freak!!” He responded, “We’re just trying to soak it all up and enjoy it while we can. His talent seems limitless. America’s new favorite racehorse.”

Well, that last sentence had to wait. Unfortunately a strained hock, not a common injury at all, suffered in February brought this streaking comet to a halt. Even Sadler said this injury was unusual, and there was no telling when he would be able to return to the races. The target following the Malibu was the Met Mile, but those plans were now up in the air. Fast forward to June 11 and here was Flightline at Belmont Park to take on Grade 1 Carter Handicap winner Speaker’s Corner, grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Aloha West, and Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Happy Saver in America’s most prestigious and historic mile race. But Flightline would have to face this formidable group coming off an injury, a six-month layoff, his first trip outside California, and racing at a mile for the first time on a sandier surface over a mile and a half oval. 

What we witnessed bought back images of horses like Ghostzapper and Spectacular Bid, two other freaks who could do anything and overcome anything.When Flightline broke dead last from the rail and then had to rush up and steady twice tying to move up inside Speaker’s Corner, who was riding an impressive three-race winning streak, it was time to find out exactly what we were dealing with. Was Flightline going to be able to overcome such adversity? Was he really the freak we had seen in his first three races? He would have to be to tower over this field the way he towered over his previous opponents after having to face so many obstacles.

When it was over, “freak” might have been too tame a word. Once Flavien Prat was able to ease him to the outside and just move his hands on him he inhaled Speaker’s Corner and again bounded clear, winning by “only” six lengths. He had run his second quarter in a scorching :22 1/5 and his third quarter around that big turn in :23 1/5 before coasting home in 1:33 2/5, earning a 112 Beyer speed figure, his fourth triple-digit Beyer number in as many starts.

So when exactly did his team realize just what they had? As Kosta Hronis texted after the race, “We knew early on he was something special that no one had ever seen before.”

That no one had ever seen before. That was quite a statement. This year and next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Triple Crown campaigns of Meadow Stable’s Riva Ridge (1972) and the incomparable Secretariat (1973), the horse no one in the world had ever seen before or since. It is appropriate that Flightline’s third dam, Finder’s Fee, is by Storm Cat, whose dam is by Secretariat, out of Fantastic Find, whose dam is by Riva Ridge.

Speaking of Secretariat, if you take the winners of the six dirt stakes on Saturday – Acorn winner Matareya, Woody Stephens winner Jack Christopher, Brooklyn winner Fearless, Ogden Phipps winner Clairiere, Met Mile winner Flightline, and Belmont winner Mo Donegal – and add the two big dirt stakes winners on Friday – True North winner Jackie’s Warrior and Bed o’ Roses winner Bella Sofia – those eight horses not only all have Secretariat in their pedigree, his name appears a total of 16 times.

Jack Christopher, who is looking more like Flightline Jr. after remaining unbeaten and untested in four career starts with his brilliant 10-length romp in the Woody Stephens, has Secretariat in his pedigree four times. He has now won his four starts by an average margin of almost 6 ½ lengths and his time of 1:21 flat in the Woody Stephens was only two-fifths of a second off the near-stakes record time of his sire Munnings.

If you add last year’s Sprint champion Jackie’s Warrior’s five-length victory in the True North in 1:15 flat for the 6 ½ furlongs, three-fifths off the track record, I doubt we have seen three more brilliant performances in one weekend in a very long time.

A good deal of the talk was about the small fields on Saturday, which, along with Friday, saw mostly four, five, and six-horse fields. Not only were the fields small, but they were dominated by racing’s powerhouse trainers. In the six dirt stakes on Saturday, Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, and Brad Cox not only won grade 1 stakes they trained 50 percent of all the horses entered, with Pletcher alone accounting for 36 percent. In the two non-sprint grass stakes, Chad Brown trained 54 percent of all the horses entered. As we would say in Brooklyn back in the ‘50s, this weekend was not for kids in short pants.

Getting back to the Belmont Stakes, run in a respectable 2:28 1/5, not only did Mo Donegal finish three lengths ahead stablemate Nest, who stumbled at the start and then and was bumped by Rich Strike, costing her valuable early position, Nest was 3 ¼ lengths ahead of third-place finisher Skippylongstocking in a gallant effort and total domination by Pletcher and owner Mike Repole. To have male and female stablemates finish one-two in a major race, and both with the same owner, is something you hardly ever see. Only Citation  defeating fellow Calumet stablemate Bewitch in the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup immediately comes to mind.

While we’re on the subject of history, I couldn’t help notice how training methods have changed so dramatically over the years. Mo Donegal’s last work before the Belmont was in company with Nest, as both horses breezed an easy half-mile in :49 4/5 seven days before the race. Three other starters worked seven days out, while Rich Strike’s final work was 11 days out. The only horse to work within five days of the Belmont was Creative Minister who had a slow half-mile breze in :50 1/5. Using those work schedules let’s turn the clocks back to 1946 and Assault’s Triple Crown campaign in what is meant merely as a fascinating history lesson and nothing more.

That year there was only one week separating the Derby and Preakness, making for a four-week Triple Crown. After winning the Derby and Preakness, Assault shipped to Belmont and worked four times in six days, culminating with a mile work in 1:43 3/5. Six days before the Belmont he worked a mile and a quarter in 2:05. Three days later he worked a half in :50. The next day, two days before the Belmont, he worked a full mile and a half in 2:32, then won the Belmont by three lengths to sweep the Triple Crown. This was after racing three times in April and working seven times before romping by eight lengths in the Derby. With only one week between the Derby and Preakness he still worked a mile in 1:45 two days before the race. So from April 5 to June 1, less than two months, Assault ran six times, swept the Triple Crown and won the Wood Memorial, and had 17 workouts.

There is no rhyme or reason for deviating onto this path other than to show how much the sport and especially the horses have changed over the years. There is no point to prove or right or wrong. Racing was what it was then and is what it is now. It is just interesting to compare the two different worlds on occasion.

Ironically, Assault’s full-sister Equal Venture would produce Prove Out, who turned in two of the most incredible performances ever seen to upset both Secretariat and Riva Ridge, while also undergoing an exhausting training schedule from trainer Allen Jerkens, who like Assault’s trainer Max Hirsch was strictly old school. More on that story next week, as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the birth of “The Giant Killer” and how he was able to upset Secretariat twice.

For now let us bid farewell to the 2022 Derby and Triple Crown trails. Because of the inspiring story behind Rich Strike we can only hope his bubble hasn’t burst and that his story doesn’t fade into the abyss of one-hit wonders and fluke upsets. The Belmont Stakes is not the race to decide his legacy, especially when you had a jockey and trainer who basically were strangers to this unique and often demoralizing racetrack and were unfamiliar with how to attack it.

Of the 20 horses in the Derby, only three made it to the Belmont, with one winning and two never being a factor. We had the Derby winner skip the Preakness and the Preakness winner skip the Belmont. So we now move into the summer racing season with the hope that the Haskell and Travers will sort out this perplexing crop of 3-year-olds. It has been an interesting journey since January. I hope you all enjoyed the ride.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Assoication/Coglianese Photos


Signup for the newsletter For new announcements, merchandise updates and other excitement here at, please enter your email address in the popup window. Our mailing list is never sold or viewed by anyone other than