In a news release announcing the date and distance reduction for the 2020 Belmont Stakes (G1), the New York Racing Association saved all of us a minute or two of research by noting that the Belmont was last run over 1 1/8 miles in 1893 and 1894.
The site of those Belmonts and others throughout that decade was Morris Park, located in The Bronx. It would serve as the Belmont’s host through 1904, after which Belmont Park on Long Island came into existence.
Although it’s hard to say what triggered the reduction of the Belmont’s distance from 10 furlongs to nine for two years, the fact that the 1892 edition over 1 1/4 miles attracted a mere two starters perhaps had something to do with it.
The mid-1890s were an odd time for the “Test of the Champion.” In addition to various distance changes, the Belmont in its 9-furlong incarnation was not even the richest, nor the most anticipated, event of the programs on which they were run.
If you picked up a typical Sunday newspaper on June 11, 1893, it was unlikely you would have seen a headline noting Comanche’s neck victory over Dr. Rice in the Belmont Stakes the previous afternoon. Your eye was more likely to see “Domino Wins the Rich Eclipse Stakes at Morris Park in a Walk.”
One of the most celebrated horses of his time, a significant influence on the breed for decades to come despite siring only four colts capable of carrying on his line, and a charter Hall of Fame inductee, the 2-year-old Domino was making his third career start in the 6-furlong Great Eclipse Stakes on a sweltering afternoon at Morris Park attended by a reported 20,000 persons.
Although Domino’s winning margin was recorded as two lengths, a newspaper account noted that, “From a sportsman’s point of view, it was a disappointment, for it was more like a procession than a race.” Domino earned $20,000, more than three times as much as Comanche did winning the Belmont.
The Great Eclipse coverage overshadowed the 1894 Belmont Stakes, too, while the undefeated Domino triggered another letdown by not showing up for the 3-year-old feature.
“The Belmont Stakes proved a great disappointment for Domino declined the issue with Henry of Navarre, and the latter had no trouble at all in winning from Prig and Assignee,” was one account of the race. Domino instead ran in the American Derby in Chicago three days later, losing for the first time and returning with a bleeding foot after trailing the field of nine.
(Domino and Henry of Navarre would eventually meet twice over 9 furlongs later that year. Although dead-heating for the win in a race at Gravesend, Henry of Navarre proved superior by more than 10 lengths in the rematch at Morris Park. Henry of Navarre beat the distance-limited Domino twice more as 4-year-olds.)
The Belmont Stakes finally got out from the Eclipse’s spotlight in 1895, in part because the New York Jockey Club’s dissolution and the Westchester Racing Association’s adoption of Morris Park as its home delayed the 1 1/4-mile race until Nov. 2.
The Belmont distance was increased to a more recognizable 1 3/8 miles in 1896, while the Westchester Racing Association owned the race at Morris Park and Belmont Park until the New York Racing Association’s formation in the 1950s.