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It was the 100th anniversary of the Belmont Stakes and perhaps a few of the 54,654 fans had come out to sing Happy Birthday. There were also those anxious for their first look at Long Island's revitalized old horse park, with its spanking-new modern stand and beautiful, European-type walking ring. But the real lure was Forward Pass. For the sixth time since 1943 the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness had a chance to become a member of the sport's most exclusive club. The membership numbers only eight colts, going back to Sir Barton in 1919 and ending with Citation in 1948, who have won all three of the Triple Crown classics.
It thus became a day drenched with sentiment and tradition—and suspense. Yet, throughout the enormous, packed plant, whose patrons were openly overjoyed at celebrating Belmont Day once again at "home" after five previous renewals at Aqueduct, there was speculation on two points. First, if Calumet Farm's Forward Pass did win, how would racing historians record his asterisk Triple Crown, gained at the expense of the disqualification of Dancer's Image in the Derby? Second, how significant, in any case, would a Belmont victory be for Forward Pass if the triumph were not achieved against Dancer's Image, the last colt to beat him over a finish line?
All this conjecture became purely academic shortly after 5:32 last Saturday afternoon, when Greentree Stable's Stage Door Johnny nailed the pacesetting Forward Pass right at the eighth pole and drew away to win his very first stakes race by a comfortable length and a quarter. A wild roar rolled spontaneously across Belmont's expanse of greenery. This was no clamor of disapproval because the sport had been deprived of a Triple Crown champion; it was ungrudging acclaim for a new classic hero. For the 100th winner of the Belmont Stakes (who earned $117,700 out of a gross purse of $161,450) wore the familiar and popular pink-and-black silks of his co-owners, John Hay (Jock) Whitney and Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson. Greentree Stable had won three previous Belmonts, with Twenty Grand, Shut Out and Capot. Many of Trainer John Gaver's most glorious moments were experienced at old Belmont, particularly in the days when his Horse of the Year, Tom Fool, was running more than a decade ago. If it was fitting that the 100th Belmont Stakes should return to its home grounds, it seemed equally apt that Greentree's silks should show first. Certainly it appeared that way to those who picked this lightly raced chestnut son of Prince John and the Ballymoss mare, Peroxide Blonde, at the inviting odds of 4 to 1 over the even-money favorite, Forward Pass.
There is no doubt that the Belmont lost an element of national appeal when Dancer's Image was forced to withdraw earlier in the week. His now-famous right front ankle simply would not hold up any longer, and rather than try to patch him up for what would have been the rubber match against Forward Pass, Owner Peter Fuller wisely announced the Dancer's immediate retirement. He will spend an unwinding period at Fuller's North Hampton, N.H. farm and then go into syndicated stud duty. With two disqualifications in two weeks, Dancer's Image made most of the racing news in the merry month of May, and now, despite his withdrawal from the scene of activity, his name will not be forgotten overnight. Next week, in Louisville's Freedom Hall, the Kentucky State Racing Commission is due to conduct open hearings on the appeal of his disappointed owner, as well as on "other matters" pertinent to the Dancer's disqualification when traces of Butazolidin were discovered in his system after the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
But if the Belmont suffered from the defection of the most famous non-Derby and non- Preakness winner, it gained enormously through the discovery of a genuine runner with both speed and stamina. Stage Door Johnny, the beneficiary of superb training by John Gaver, was given the best ride of his life by 27-year-old Heliodoro Gustines, and it was a sporting delight to watch the efforts of this Greentree team bear fruit. The upset was achieved over a colt who is a fine runner in his own right. Even in defeat, Forward Pass proved an honest, game fighter.
The Belmont, however, proved once again what a lot of wise horsemen have said all along: a good fresh colt, more often than not, will beat a good hard-raced colt. Forward Pass had 10 races last year, and the Belmont was his 10th this year. John Gaver gave Stage Door Johnny only two races a year ago. The big-boned chestnut clearly needed time to mature, so he was then treated to a nonracing winter of seasoning in Aiken, S.C. He went to the post only three times this spring before the Belmont. If he was green, it was also apparent that he was fresh and ready. He had finished second in both 1967 races, was third his first time out in 1968, six weeks before the Belmont, then won his next two by six and four lengths respectively.
Still, with all the speed any horse should need, Forward Pass figured to win the Belmont in a breeze if his jockey, Milo Valenzuela, wasn't subjected to an early duel and was permitted to take the lead and slow down the pace to his own liking. Nobody really thought the Belmont trophy would be handed out as willingly as this, however—not even Valenzuela. And sure enough, he did not have things his own way. At the start, as expected, Milo put Forward Pass on the lead, and he ticked off respectable and reasonable fractions of 48 2/5 for the half mile, 1:12 2/5 for six furlongs, 1:37 for the mile and 2:02 2/5 for the Derby mile and a quarter. But all the while Mrs. Adele L. Rand's Call Me Prince, with Bill Boland up, was a constant source of worry. Three times Call Me Prince moved up to challenge, and three times he was repulsed—obviously at some expense to Forward Pass. While this race was going on between only two of the nine horses, Gustines, who had ridden Stage Door Johnny in all his previous efforts, had started off in seventh place, then moved to sixth and finally to third after a mile. Gustines later admitted that he wasn't worried about any horse in the field, and that's the way he rode Stage Door Johnny. Or, as he put it, "I was cool, yes?"
Indeed, he was. Leaving the three-eighths pole, he moved swiftly and efficiently. At the quarter pole of the country's only mile-and-a-half racetrack, he was a mere half a length off the leader but driving hard on the outside. For nearly an eighth of a mile these two courageous horses were at each other's throats, and then, with just another eighth to go, Stage Door Johnny put his chestnut head in front and went on to win in the excellent time of 2:27 1/5. Behind Forward Pass—12 lengths behind him, in fact—came Call Me Prince, followed in turn by Draft Card, Ardoise, Chompion, Sir Beau, T.V. Commercial and Jade Amicol. Aside from Call Me Prince, none had ever been in the race.
Overall it was a definitive contest. Had Forward Pass not run up to his usual consistent form his conqueror might be subject to some disparagement. But Forward Pass ran a very good race. He did not tire; he was simply outrun. By nightfall on Belmont Day some were already proclaiming Stage Door Johnny the best 3-year-old in the country. At a mile and a half, which is raced all too seldom in this country, he may be. And he'll have his chances this summer and fall to substantiate his claim to a title in shorter skirmishes with Forward Pass as well as with Call Me Prince and King Ranch's Out of the Way. (As for the rank of best 3-year-old anywhere in this year of disqualification, Raymond Guest's Sir Ivor may have earned it when he won this week's 189th Epsom Derby.)
After Stage Door Johnny's Belmont win, co-owner Jock Whitney turned to his sister Joan Payson and said, "Since your Mets lost today, we had to win something!" Later, as all hands sipped champagne while discussing the week's victories by Sir Ivor and Stage Door Johnny, one wag tongue-in-cheeked, "It may not be the year for the Mets, but it's turning out to be quite a year for ex-Ambassadors."