The stories of the horses that have failed to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed beat Alydar three straight times are littered with tales of freak accidents, poor rides, controversial trainers, bad racing luck, and gut-wrenching photo finishes. It's been 34 years since we've witnessed a horse win the Triple Crown and, for some, it seems like a lot longer.
Let's take a look back at those that have failed in the final leg, the Belmont Stakes.
Spectacular Bid - 1978
Perhaps the most shocking Triple Crown failure since Affirmed was the first - Spectacular Bid in 1979. The Bid is considered one of the greatest thoroughbreds in American racing history; over the course of his illustrious career he won 26 races in 30 starts, finished second twice, third once, and in only a single instance did Spectacular Bid fail to finish in the top 3. His lone third place finish came in the 1979 Belmont Stakes when he lost to Coastal and Global Act in a monumental upset.
The story of Spectacular Bid's failure at the Belmont is well-known to many horse racing fans as a combination of bad luck and a bad ride. As legend has it, on the morning of the 1979 Belmont Stakes, Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin that embedded itself into his hoof. Although he was checked out by the vets and appeared fine after the pin was removed, the "safety pin incident" is firmly entrenched in the lore of the Triple Crown.
Once The Bid finally made it to the gate (and wasn't hit by a falling meteor in the process), his was given what has to be considered one of the more debated rides in Belmont Stakes history. Jockey Ron Franklin inexplicably sent The Bid hard to the lead on the backstretch, almost certainly wasting valuable energy in the process. Spectacular Bid faded badly in the stretch, ending the hopes for three straight Triple Crown winners, and finished a shocking third. Following the Belmont, Franklin was removed as The Bid's jockey and replaced by Hall of Famer Willie Shoemaker. Shoemaker would ride Spectacular Bid for the remainder of his career, winning 12 of 13 starts, with a loss to Affirmed in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup the only blemish on his record.
1981 - Pleasant Colony
Pleasant Colony went to the post of the 1981 Belmont Stakes at the 4/5 favorite to win the Triple Crown but once he got into the gate, everything went wrong. After throwing a bit of a hissy fit in the starting gate, Pleasant Colony broke slowly and was racing in last place after a half-mile. He began to improve his position as the field neared the far turn but simply ran out of real estate and finished third, a length and three quarters behind the winner, Summing.
1987 - Alysheba
To win the Triple Crown a horse must be both talented and a little lucky. Alysheba was certainly talented, but his racing luck seemed to run out in the 1987 Belmont Stakes when he finished a disappointing 4th behind Bet Twice, Cryptoclearance and Gulch. Breaking from post position #3, Alysheba was content to sit in the middle of the pack as the field ran down the Belmont backstretch. As he approached the far turn, Alysheba found very little racing and then had to take up (check) hard in order to avoid rival Gone West as he entered the top of the stretch. By the time jockey Chris McCarron had found clear racing room, it was much too late to challenge the runaway winner.
1989 - Sunday Silence
In 1989, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer embarked on one of the great rivalries in the last two decades when they fought tooth and nail through three legs of the Triple Crown and the 1989 Breeders' Cup Classic. In both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Sunday Silence got the best of the favored Easy Goer, including a dramatic stretch duel at Pimlico that saw Sunday Silence prevail in a photo finish. At the Belmont Stakes, with history in his grasp and finally the betting favorite, Sunday Silence was no match for Easy Goer, finishing eight lengths back in second place.
The two rivals would go their separate ways after the Belmont until they were re-united at the 1989 Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park. Dubbed the "Race of the Decade" by many, Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer for the third time in four starts on his way to being named Horse of the Year.
1997 - Silver Charm
At the top of the stretch in the 1997 Belmont Stakes, Silver Charm held a half-length lead over weakening Free House, and a length and a half lead over Touch Gold. After racing very wide on the far turn, the Derby and Preakness winner was gradually worn down over the length of the Belmont Stretch and finished three-quarters of a length behind Touch Gold at the finish.
1998 - Real Quiet
In terms of the margin of defeat, no horse has come closer to winning the Triple Crown since 1978 than Real Quiet in 1998. After assuming a four length lead with just a quarter of a mile remaining between him and racing immortality, Real Quiet slowly lost ground to the hard charging Victory Gallop and jockey Gary Stevens. With each and every stride, Victory Gallop crept ever closer to the Derby and Preakness winner, culminating in a dramatic head bob at the wire. Upon review of the photo finish, Real Quiet had lost the Triple Crown by a nose.
1999 - Charismatic
Following an awkward start at the gate, Charismatic appeared to have everything going his way in the 1999 Belmont Stakes. He sat just off the pace in second and tracked the early speed of filly Silverbulletday in the early stages of the race. After poking his head in front at the top of the stretch, Charismatic faded the third and was immediately pulled up by jockey Chris Antley after suffering an injury to his left front leg. He underwent successful surgery to repair the injury and currently stands at stud in Japan.
2002 - War Emblem
Sometimes, it's just not your day. That certainly was the case for War Emblem as he attempted to win the Triple Crown in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. War Emblem's chances for success ended almost a second after the starting gate opened as the Derby and Preakness winner stumbled badly and then bumped with another horse. From that point forward, War Emblem struggled to find any kind of a rhythm and finished a well-beaten eighth behind 70/1 winner Sarava. Other than Big Brown in 2008, War Emblem's Belmont was the worst performance by a horse trying to win the Triple Crown in the last three decades. Unfortunately for War Emblem, sometimes the racing gods are not on your side.
2003 - Funny Cide
The Triple Crown run by the "Gutsy Gelding" Funny Cide came to a meek end when he finished third behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted in the 2003 Belmont Stakes. The New York-bred Funny Cide had been good, but not great, in his races leading up to the Kentucky Derby and he was generally considered to be a notch below Empire Maker, the winner of the G1-Florida Derby and G1-Wood Memorial. But Funny Cide turned the tables on Empire Maker in the Derby and then added a big win in the Preakness to set up an improbable chance at a Triple Crown. However, Empire Maker would have his revenge in the Belmont as he spoiled Funny Cide's party as the 2/1 second choice.
2004 - Smarty Jones
Perhaps the most painful Triple Crown failure in recent years was the defeat of Smarty Jones to Bridstone in 2004. Smarty Jones wasn't just the best three-year-old colt in America in 2004, he was much the best. He appeared to be so above and beyond the talent of his rivals that it was difficult to envision any horse denying Smarty his place in history, despite the fact that he had the pedigree of a miler. However, at the end of the Belmont, his pedigree and running style proved to be his undoing as he couldn't hold off the grinding long shot Bridstone in the final furlong.
Following the Belmont, many criticized the ride of jockey Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones after Smarty attempted to sprint away from the field as they entered the backstretch. But beyond the importance Elliott's ride was the ride of Hall of Famer Jerry Baily on Eddington. When Smarty Jones assumed the lead of the race, Bailey moved Eddington up to ensure that the Derby and Preakness winner would have to work hard every step of the way. In the end, this tactical decision by Bailey may have been the biggest factor in Smarty Jones weakening in the final quarter mile.
2008 - Big Brown
Trained by the controversial and outspoken Richard Dutrow, Big Brown's bid for the Triple Crown in 2008 proved to be about a lot of other things than simply a horse race. There was the tragic breakdown of Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles just five weeks prior, the media frenzy surrounding the past of Big Brown's trainer and his numerous medication violations and suspension, and a minor hoof injury that cost the Big Brown training time during the three week gap between the Preakness and the Belmont. By the time jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled up Big Brown in the stretch of the 2008 Belmont Stakes, we were left to wonder, "will the Triple Crown jinx ever end?"