The Belmont Stakes is known as the Test of the Champion. Most years, however, due to the very nature of the Triple Crown, it could also be known as the Test of Pessimism vs. Optimism.
Thunder Gulch is also part of a bit of race-nerd trivia because he helped his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, pull off a nifty historical footnote.
If the Triple Crown is on the line, there is no greater place to be in the racing world than at Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes day. The crowds, the excitement, the money -- they're all there.
But when the Triple Crown isn't on the line? Well, that is a different story. Fewer people show up. That uncontainable feeling of history in the making is missing. It is easy enough to dismiss it as just a nice Grade 1 race for 3-year-olds instead of acknowledging it for the classic it is.
This year is one of those non-Triple Crown years. Two different horses took the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and racing must wait another year for a potential Triple Crown winner. It has been waiting since Affirmed won in 1978. That said, for the optimists of the world, there is still a lot to like.
Take Kentucky Derby winner Orb. He is looking to become the first horse since Thunder Gulch in 1995 to win the first and last legs of the Triple Crown. There is worse company to keep -- Thunder Gulch was named the champion 3-year-old colt that year.
Thunder Gulch is also part of a bit of race-nerd trivia because he helped his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, pull off a nifty historical footnote. Because the Lukas-trained Timber Country won the Preakness in '95, the Hall of Fame conditioner de facto won the Triple Crown for himself.
Now 21 years old, Thunder Gulch resides at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Kentucky. Although he stands for a modest fee of $10,000, the champion racehorse has produced some notable offspring. While the record has since been broken, his daughter Spain retired as the highest money-earning mare in North American history. Another one of his Grade 1-winning daughters, Balance, is a half-sister to 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta. And then there is Point Given.
In 2001, Point Given was supposed to win the Kentucky Derby. He didn't. However, he did become the first horse in history to win four $1 million races in a row: the Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational Handicap and Travers Stakes. He was named Horse of the Year, and his victory in the Belmont is still worthy of a watch. He rolled home that day 12¼ lengths in front.
Point Given is currently a stallion at historic Calumet Farm, and as it so happens, Brad Kelley is now his majority owner. Kelley is also the owner of Oxbow, who is looking to join Point Given as a Preakness winner who also took the Belmont. Oxbow is trained by Lukas, who trained Thunder Gulch, who is Point Given's sire. And Oxbow is ridden by Gary Stevens, who also was the jockey for Thunder Gulch and Point Given. All irrelevant, really, to the race, but they make for fun historical points.
If you have no interest in either the Derby or Preakness winner, there are still things to lure you in. Fourteen horses are expected to run Saturday, which is just one less than the record for the largest field in Belmont history. In 1983, Caveat defeated Slew o' Gold and 12 others in the biggest field ever assembled for the race.
Surely, among the 14 competing story lines, there is someone who might catch your eye.
Then there is Unlimited Budget. She is notable mainly because she is a she. That's not to say she isn't a lovely racehorse, regardless of gender, but leading up to the race she is going to get a lot more attention than some of her competitors because of her gender.
After all, one of the most thrilling Belmonts in recent memory starred a filly named Rags to Riches. In 2007, she went head-to-head with Curlin and defeated him to become the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years. Curlin, who had lost the Derby but won the Preakness, would go on to be named Horse of the Year in both 2007 and 2008.
Unlimited Budget is trained by Todd Pletcher, as Rags to Riches was. As if that is not enough to draw attention to the filly, Unlimited Budget's jockey is also female. Rosie Napravnik is seeking to become only the second woman ever to win the Belmont. Julie Krone, who won on Colonial Affair in 1993, is the only woman ever to win any leg of the Triple Crown.
With Napravnik's start in the Belmont, she will also become the only female rider to compete in all three Triple Crown races in the same year. She finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness aboard Mylute. Both of those finishes were the best ever by a female rider in each race.
It would be nice if the day comes when Napravnik is known for her success, period, rather than her success as a woman, but that day isn't likely to come soon. It is still too novel.
All in all, there is a lot that can happen on Saturday. And a lot that will not happen. It all depends on whether you want to be a pessimist or an optimist about the situation. If you are leaning pessimist, maybe pull up Point Given's Belmont. Or Rags to Riches' run into the history books. They just might remind you that the Belmont can be amazing, even if the Triple Crown, as a series, was not.