November 27, 2021

Caveat emptor: the 2021 Belmont Stakes and its resemblance to an older classic

The Belmont Stakes trophy (c) Harold Roth/Horsephotos.com

Like snowflakes, no two races are exactly alike. While attempts to draw comparisons between past and present can be tricky business, the composition of the Belmont S. (G1) field on June 5 has the potential to bear a striking resemblance to one held nearly four decades ago.

Should Rombauer make it to the starting gate at Belmont Park, he will be the first Preakness (G1) winner since Deputed Testamony in 1983 to attempt to win the last two legs of the Triple Crown after not competing in the Kentucky Derby (G1). Unfortunately for Deputed Testamony, he was no more successful than the other three colts who tried and failed to accomplish the feat since the end of the Second World War: Greek Money (1962), Codex (1980), and Aloma’s Ruler (1982).

Caveat wins the 1983 Belmont Stakes (Bob Coglianese Photography)

Like Deputed Testamony, Rombauer will not be facing the Kentucky Derby first-place finisher in a Belmont rematch. In 1983, Derby winner Sunny’s Halo weakened to sixth in the Preakness after suffering the week of the race from a skin rash or dermatitis (sound familiar?). Sunny’s Halo did not move on to the Belmont, but instead competed the same day in the nine-furlong Arlington Classic (G1), in which he flopped again as a strong favorite, though in his defense he exited the race with filling in an ankle.

With the Derby winner absent and the longshot Preakness winner a non-dominant figure, the 1983 Belmont attracted a record cast of 15. As things stand now, the 2021 Belmont also appears as if it will have a full field. And though it’s far too soon to tell how wagering will shake out, the betting market in this year’s Belmont could be dominated by Derby runners that bypassed the Preakness, as was the case 38 years ago.

The 5-2 favorite in the 1983 Belmont was Slew o’ Gold, who had run fourth by 3 1/4 lengths in the Derby after being bothered slightly at the start. Unlike today, when most Derby-to-Belmont starters are rested during the five-week interim, Slew o’ Gold prepped for the Belmont 13 days beforehand in the Peter Pan (G3), which he dominated by 12 lengths.

The close second choice in the Belmont wagering, at 2.6-1, was Derby third-place finisher Caveat. Saddled with post 20 at Churchill Downs, the son of Cannonade was forced to take the overland route into contention and was beaten 2 1/4 lengths by Sunny’s Halo. He, too, had a prep over the Belmont strip prior to the “Test of the Champion,” winning an allowance by three lengths the day after Slew o’ Gold’s Peter Pan romp.

Approaching the head of the stretch in the Belmont, Slew o’ Gold began overtaking the pace-setting Au Point when jockey Angel Cordero Jr. allowed the favorite to drift into the tiring longshot, thus briefly cutting off Caveat, who was attempting to rally inside both horses. After bouncing off the rail a couple times, Caveat regained his momentum and surged to defeat Slew o’ Gold by 3 1/2 lengths, giving trainer Woody Stephens the second of his five consecutive Belmont victories.

Caveat arguably jumped to the head of the class with the win, but injuries sustained during the rough running of that Belmont later forced his retirement and he never ran again. Sunny’s Halo and Deputed Testamony each added a Grade 1 victory later in the year, but at season’s end Slew o’ Gold was judged best of the division after beating older rivals in both the Woodward (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). Despite a modest wins-to-starts ratio that season, Slew o’ Gold joined an elite group of three-year-old champions without a Triple Crown race victory.

Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality could be this year’s Slew o’ Gold and Caveat from a betting perspective, but they are far from being the only Derby-to-Belmont candidates with a chance at winning the blanket of carnations. And if the 2021 season continues to mirror that of 1983 at the conclusion of the Belmont, expect the race for championship honors to be a protracted one that will go down to the wire.