Most of the owners of the nine 3-year-olds in last week's 107th running of the Belmont Stakes were holding cautious but optimistic court while feasting from a sumptuous buffet that the track provides on Belmont Day. Among them was Arthur A. Seeligson Jr., the 54-year-old San Antonio oil investor whose tricky yellow, orange, brown and white silks have been carried this spring by his impressive chestnut colt Avatar. "If this was a horse show," joked Seeligson, "we'd win the blue. But a mile-and-a-half race is another matter. Still, I've brought in three dry holes this year, so I figure this might be our day."
The majority of the bettors in the crowd of 60,321 didn't see it that way. They went big, as expected, on Foolish Pleasure, who had won the Kentucky Derby and then lost a somewhat controversial Preakness to Master Derby. And they also bet surprisingly heavily on Prince Thou Art, who since a memorable victory over Foolish Pleasure in the Florida Derby has not finished better than third. But Avatar was ignored, so much so that when he sprang from the gate into the demanding world of a mile-and-a-half race his odds were a fat 13 to 1.
But once the gate opened, the combination of Avatar's breeding and guts, the confident training of Tommy Doyle and a spectacular display of horsemanship by Jockey Bill Shoemaker was enough to bring the Seeligson team victory by a narrowing neck over Foolish Pleasure. For 43-year-old Shoemaker, who in his 26 years of race-riding has amassed purses totaling some $55 million and has had close to 6,900 winners, including more than 100 $100,000 races (all world records), his fifth Belmont Stakes victory was a pure and exquisite exhibition of the professional jockey at his very best.
One false move by the mighty little man would have given Foolish Pleasure the victory, and with it, most likely, a lock on the 1975 3-year-old championship for Colts. But Avatar's win divided the Triple Crown three ways and confirmed at least two earlier judgments. One is that this crop of 3-year-olds is indeed a good, solid, healthy and competitive one. A second is that they are going to continue to give racegoers some highly interesting races late in the season—the Travers at Saratoga, for example, and the Marlboro Cup and Woodward at Belmont in the fall. That's when these youngsters may experience the dubious pleasure of tackling the older horses, notably Forego, the 1974 Horse of the Year. And maybe they'll meet a lady named Ruffian, too.
There is a natural fascination in every running of the Belmont, for it is always the first time that any of its entrants have been asked to go 12 furlongs, a distance far more popular in England, Ireland and on the Continent than in America. And last Saturday's renewal had an added sparkle because all the chief contenders from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were back for Round Three. As LeRoy Jolley, who trains Foolish Pleasure, said, "Usually the Belmont comes up with one or two standouts and not much else. This year it isn't that way at all. You've got six Derby winners [ Florida, Louisiana, California, Kentucky, Santa Anita and Jersey] who have survived the winter and spring races, plus that Burch man." The last reference was to a colt by Ribot named Nalees Rialto who is trained by Elliott Burch for Mrs. George M. Humphrey and Paul Mellon. Burch had already won three Belmonts (with Sword Dancer, Quadrangle and Arts and Letters), and he said during Belmont Week, "Nalees Rialto reminds me somewhat of Arts and Letters, and I think he's got some ability."
All of the owners felt they belonged in the Belmont and had a decent shot at winning it. Said John Russell, who trains Singh for Cynthia Phipps and Hal Price Headley Jr., "This colt had a rough trip and some excuses in the Preakness, in which he finished sixth. But he ran back so well in winning the Jersey Derby that we've got to give him a chance. This is one of those years when a lot of colts have a chance, Singh included."
Prince Thou Art's trainer and owner were not exuding confidence, but they were not gloomy, either. Trainer Lou Rondinello had to admit that the son of Hail to Reason and the champion mare Primonetta "wasn't himself in Kentucky, where he ran third in the Blue Grass and sixth in the Derby, and was only about 75% of himself in the Preakness, in which he finished fourth. But now he's much better and should improve with the blinkers he's been using in his Belmont works. He's just had the two best works of his career, so it gives us some hope." Added Owner John Gal-breath, "If Prince Thou Art runs back to his Florida Derby, he might easily win the Belmont. He's certainly bred right, and some of these others may not want that kind of distance."
Avatar was stabled in the King Ranch barn during his Belmont Park stay, and the Santa Anita Derby winner drew more admirers every morning. Trainer Doyle was the exemplar of visiting cordiality when he said, " Belmont Park has a consistently fine surface. It has always been that way, and it is a pleasure to be here." When asked if he felt he was working Avatar hard, Doyle said, "If the colt is working too hard I'm not aware of it. I hope he's ready. If he's not, it's too late."
And, of course, it wasn't. Avatar and Belmont Day meshed beautifully. If, however, the Belmont had been run a day earlier, on Friday, June 6, instead of Saturday, June 7, there might have been the kind of disaster only the U.S. Coast Guard could cope with. A cloudburst hit the track Friday afternoon, and after the fourth race the flooding around the five-eighths pole was so deep that the rest of the card was canceled. Superintendent Joe King's track maintenance crew worked until 10 that night spreading sand on the washed-out areas, and the next morning, after more work, the nation's only mile-and-a-half track was officially labeled "fast." But by post time—5:39 p.m.—it was neither fast nor even wet-fast. It was more "dead" than "alive," a condition that meant only the fittest of horses could make the long tour a winning one.
The Belmont walking ring before the race attracted the largest crowd in years, and a few of the spectators narrowly avoided a rush trip to the First Aid Room when Singh tried to run his race there instead of on the main track. The last male offspring of the celebrated Bold Ruler bucked and kicked as though he was being loaded into the chute at the Calgary Stampede. He hung one hind leg over the paddock railing, not the best thing for an athlete warming up in any sport. He kicked his stable pony and made menacing passes at the spectators. By the time he got to the starting gate he looked as if he had just stepped out of the shower.