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A Short History of the Belmont Stakes

Harry is a longtime horseracing fan who also writes about history, music, and science.

This 1868 print by William C. Robertson, titled "The False Start," features the grand stand of Jerome Park in the background. Jerome Park was the first site of the Belmont Stakes.

This 1868 print by William C. Robertson, titled "The False Start," features the grand stand of Jerome Park in the background. Jerome Park was the first site of the Belmont Stakes.

The History of the Belmont Stakes

The first-ever Belmont Stakes was held in 1868, making it the oldest of the three Triple Crown races. The race was named for its financial sponsor, August Belmont Sr., a successful NYC entrepreneur. However, this first event did not occur at the Elmont track where the contest is held today. Instead, the event happened at Jerome Park in the Bronx. Incidentally, Jerome Park is named for another New York City financial whiz, Leonard Jerome.

The race continued to be held in the Bronx until 1890 when it was moved to the nearby Morris Park Race Course. There it remained until 1905 when the newly built Belmont Park track in the town of Elmont became the new home for the Belmont Stakes. The race has remained on Long Island until the present day. However, the event has not been continuous, as it was canceled in 1911 and 1912 due to the short-lived prohibition of betting on horseraces in New York State.

When a Triple Crown is on the line, the Belmont Grand Stand is packed.

When a Triple Crown is on the line, the Belmont Grand Stand is packed.

Development of the Triple Crown

The first horse to win all three of the major races (Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) was Gallant Fox, who completed the feat in 1930. Even so, the term Triple Crown was not in common use until 1935 when Omaha (son of Gallant Fox) repeated the three-race victory. After Omaha's win, the Triple Crown became a household word.

The spacing of the three races has not changed. But before the 30s, the race dates varied, and on a few rare occasions, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes even occurred on the same day, thus making a Triple Crown champion impossible.

Transportation of Racehorses

Another obstacle to the development of the Triple Crown was the transportation of the horses, for before the development of the internal combustion engine, moving a horse by train was quite costly and not very efficient. As a result, owners did not take their animals too far from their home bases to compete in a race.

The Belmont Stakes is known as "The Run for the Carnations," because the winning horse and jockey receive a blanket of white carnations.

The Belmont Stakes is known as "The Run for the Carnations," because the winning horse and jockey receive a blanket of white carnations.

The Longest Yard

Because of its extra 1/4 mile in length, the Belmont Stakes is often referred to as "The Test of Champions." The two extra furlongs (there are eight furlongs in a mile) change this race to a contest of stamina and endurance. Whereas the Derby and the Preakness may test the speed of a young horse, the Belmont Stakes allows spectators to see which jockey can best pace their steed on the longer journey around the track.

What's a Furlong?

Even if you have just followed a few horse races, most likely you have heard the term "furlong" thrown around at least once or twice. In case you're wondering about the origin, the word can be traced back to medieval England, where an acre was measured as a furlong wide and a furlong long. Since there are eight furlongs in a mile, a square mile would contain 64 acres with each acre being 220 by 220 yards. Today, the term "furlong" is reserved almost exclusively for horse racing.

Secratariat's Amazing Victory at the 1973 Belmont Stakes

In 1973, Secratariat was involved in a neck-and-neck race with a horse called Sham—at least for the first half of the race. Then Secretariat ran away with the contest, leaving Sham in the dust and winning by just over 30 lengths. In the process, the horse set a world record for twelve furlongs on a dirt track, which still stands today. Since that day, all the Belmont Stakes races are compared with Secretariat's great victory. So far, not one horse has come close.

Air Horse One

Flying Horses

Today, horses are flown from race to race, usually arriving at a big event like the Belmont Stakes a few days before the actual race. This reality of equestrian travel makes it much easier for a horse to compete in all three races. In fact, there are even special airplanes designed for horse travel, which can transport as many as 20 racehorses at one time. Given that a thoroughbred weighs in between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds, these are fair-sized cargo planes doing the transporting.

Another sidelight to equestrian air travel is that now the Triple Crown is an international event with some horses coming from as far away as Saudi Arabia or South Africa to run for the roses, the black-eyed Susans, and/or the carnations.

© 2018 Harry Nielsen

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