It remains one of the most dramatic finishes in sports history: a pair of chestnut colts, sprinting for the wire at Belmont Park, horse racing’s biggest prize at stake.
The Triple Crown.
It was June 10, 1978. New York was reeling from a fiscal crisis. The Son of Sam serial killer was finally behind bars. Ford had just recalled a million and a half Pintos. The night before the race, Larry Holmes had beaten Ken Norton for the heavyweight championship. But at that moment in Belmont, none of that mattered: the country’s two fastest thoroughbreds were running head-to-head down the final stretch.
On the inside rail, Affirmed, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, sprinted for his place in the history books. At his neck was Alydar, who’d come second in those races. The Belmont Stakes crowd of 65,000 rose and roared.
High above the track, Richard Migliore, a 14-year-old aspiring jockey, sat with his skinny legs dangling over the third-deck railing. A bolt of delight surged through his body, and just as the horses passed the wire, he squeezed through a mass of legs and arms until he made it to the winner’s circle, where Affirmed was standing. The 11th, and last, horse to win the Triple Crown.
“One of the most thrilling things I’ve been able to witness,” Migliore recalled last week. “I was delirious. I was already in love with racing, but that cemented the deal, and there was no way I was going to do anything but be around the sport.”
Since then, 11 horses have won the Derby and Preakness but failed to win the third stop in the Triple Crown series. On Saturday, with the 144th running of Belmont Stakes, another chestnut colt, I’ll Have Another, has a promising shot at the title.
If there was ever a time when horse racing needed a Triple Crown winner, this is it. Attendance is down dramatically since Affirmed's triumph. So is the number of races. With the advent of simulcasting, purses and wagers have increased, but most people who bet don’t bother with the track; they can do it from just about anywhere. The Sport of Kings is struggling to maintain its relevance -- and integrity. Allegations of runaway horse-doping abound, including charges against I’ll Have Another’s trainer.
A lot has changed since 1978, but horse racing still relies more than anything else on what veteran turf journalist Edward Bowen calls “its essence”: the majestic old tracks, the horses' graceful athleticism, the thrill of a winning bet. And maybe the chance to see history made.
“One of the great things about the sport is that some thing change, but its still got the essentials down,” Bowen said. “And in this drought of Triple Crown winners, those conditions have not changed.”
At Belmont Park this weekend, just as in 1978 and for decades before that, the competing horses will exit the paddock past Belmont's most recognizable image: an ancient Japanese white pine. The winner will still receive a blanket of white carnations and a solid silver Tiffany & Co. cup. And in the stands will be an eclectic mix of hard-core bettors, socialites, celebrities, politicians and regular fans.
The Belmont Stakes typically draws about the same number of people who came out for Affirmed’s win 34 years ago. That changes dramatically when a horse has a chance at the crown. Thanks to I’ll Have Another’s run, officials expect attendance to jump to over 100,000. Many millions more will watch on TV; NBC expects its Belmont ratings to about double this year.
"Without a Triple Crown on the line, the story is relegated to the sports pages, but the Triple Crown brings the casual sports fan, even people who are not casual fans," Bowen said. "Because nothing says history the way a Triple Crown race does."
Migliore, that boy in the stands in 1978, fulfilled his dream to become a jockey, working at Belmont for more than three decades. He is now a broadcast analyst for the New York Racing Association. On Saturday, when the horses jump from the gate, he expects to feel a similar jolt of excitement. For two-and-a-half minutes, he'll feel like a kid again.
"That electricity in the air. You can feel the tension," Migliore said. "The immensity of it. The sense of history. People want to witness history. They want to be able to say, ‘I was there.’"
A memory that will never fade.
The Belmont Stakes will air live at 5 pm June 9 on NBC