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The ending of the 123rd running of the Belmont Stakes last Saturday was quick and clean—a classic of its kind, in fact, with leather whips flashing in the sun, the crowd howling and surging toward the rail and two grand-looking thoroughbreds, one a chestnut and the other a bay, straining and stretching wearily for the wire.
It was, for 15 seconds, the perfect finale of an imperfect season, a finish that defined the breed and all that it was ever meant to be. After months of horses sparring through dozens of prep races, after weeks of their jousting and parrying through the traveling road show that is the Triple Crown, the resolving drama unfolded suddenly in the final 220 yards of the Belmont, the race that is the grand-daddy of them all.
On the inside was Hansel, who had won the Preakness on May 18 by a smashing seven lengths after running a disappointing 10th as the tepid favorite in the May 4 Kentucky Derby. Now, running with his nose up and his head cocked slightly to the right, Hansel was leading the 11-horse Belmont field by 2� lengths as he raced past the eighth pole in midstretch. Jockey Jerry Bailey was flailing on him lefthanded with the whip, and the colt, his ears swept back, was drifting out, beginning to weaken visibly. At 1� miles, the Belmont is the longest and most searching of the Triple Crown races, and Hansel, a son of Woodman, whose bloodlines are questionable for siring stayers, appeared to be racing beyond the outer reaches of his pedigree.
So Bailey was bouncing and banging on the colt. "I asked him, but near the eighth pole there was no more acceleration left," Bailey said later. "The heart and the will were there, but he couldn't go any faster. He was trying as hard as he could possibly try and I really believe the last half mile his heart got him home."
Out in the middle of the track, bearing down on Hansel in a last desperate run, was Strike the Gold, who had won the Kentucky Derby with a flourish by almost two lengths but came up inexplicably empty in the Preakness, finishing sixth. Whatever had happened to Strike the Gold at Pimlico, it was all behind him by the time he got to the eighth pole at Belmont Park. Charging on the outside, he was cutting into Hansel's lead, with jockey Chris Antley slashing at his colt from the left side. Hansel's lead was two lengths. Then one and a half. Then a length. Then three quarters. Then a half.
The Derby winner was chasing the Preakness winner.
Antley could not take his eyes off Hansel. "You know how you sometimes stare so hard to make something happen?" said Antley, his eyes widening. "I was starin' hard at Jerry's horse, tryin' to make him come back to me. I could see that his horse was getting tired, but so was mine.... But I kept starin' and starin'." And Hansel kept coming back to Strike the Gold. Upstairs in the clubhouse box seats, Nick Zito, the trainer of Strike the Gold, was pounding on the railing in front of his box and screaming a chant above the thunderous din of the crowd: "Come on, champion! Come on, champion!"
The Derby winner was running down the Preakness winner.
This was what Antley had come to do. And this, of course, was what Bailey had come to fear since the moment that Hansel, running bug-eyed against the bit, had pulled him to the lead as the horses swept out of the backstretch and into the far turn. More was at stake here than the $417,480 winner's purse. Under the Triple Crown Challenge scoring system, which allots points for finishes in each of the series' three races, the two colts were tied for a bonus of $1 million. In fact, if Hansel, Strike the Gold or Mane Minister, who finished third in both the Derby and Preakness, were to win the Belmont Stakes, he would automatically earn the $1 million jackpot.
Through the early fractions, Corporate Report, with Hansel less than two lengths behind, had buzzed through the first half mile in :46[3/5], good time. Strike the Gold was merely cantering along, some 16 lengths off the lead. Hansel rushed past the three-quarter mark in 1:11[3/5], lively for the distance, and at the far turn, as he clicked off the mile in 1:36[3/5], realistic time, the crowd began stirring. Far behind him, Strike the Gold had taken to the high ground, and now he was sweeping quickly past horses.