To the majorityof racing's traditionalists the Belmont Stakes, which is to be run off for the91st time this Saturday, is far and away the most important event on theAmerican 3-year-old calendar. Its testing conditions—scale weight of 126 poundsover the true classic mile-and-a-half distance—have over the years separatedgood runners from mediocre ones and stamped the Belmont winner as leader of hisdivision. In the last 13 years, 10 winners of this great race finished theseason with the 3-year-old championship.
This week's race,although it will be skipped by Kentucky Derby winner Tomy Lee (who is beingreadied in California for the June 27 Hollywood Derby), may not boast the bestfield of recent years, but it now seems likely that it will provide one of themore interesting. In one corner, for example, is Sword Dancer, who afterdisappointing in the Preakness last month came back two weeks later to run thebest race of his career in whipping older horses in the Metropolitan Handicap.In another corner is Mrs. Halina Braunstein's Preakness winner Royal Orbit whocould do no better than a none-too-impressive third in last week's Peter Pan.And now, right between them, steps still another logical contender. His name isBlack Hills, and if you haven't heard too many impressive things about himbefore now the reason is simply that cagey 78-year-old Max Hirsch, who trainsBlack Hills for Robert J. Kleberg's King Ranch, never intended this bay son ofPrincequillo to reach the peak of his form until right now—this week. "Iwould rather win the Belmont Stakes than any other race in the country,"said Max the other morning as he strolled leisurely through the King Ranchbarn. By Black Hills' stall he paused for a moment. "This colt has had somestomach trouble on and off this spring," he continued, "but because ofit I've had a chance to do some stalling for time with him. He's adeep-shouldered horse who runs high in the withers, and he looks to me like aregular staying type. But to tell the truth Black Hills hasn't yet looked likea real good runner. If he's going to show it at all the time is now."
Only a day afterMax Hirsch had made these profound observations Black Hills popped up andproved he was ready to show it. Naturally the mile-and-an-eighth Peter Pan, inwhich he won over Bagdad and Royal Orbit, can hardly be taken as a literalpreview of the Belmont. Royal Orbit was top-weighted at 127 pounds, while BlackHills got in with 113. And while Max Hirsch really wanted to win this one,Royal Orbit's trainer, Reggie Cornell, was not about to punish the Californiainvader just a week before his major objective. In fact before the race he saidcheerfully, "I'm going to let him just gallop along and do what he wants.And we're certainly not going to beat him up or anything. If he runs alongnicely I won't be disappointed if we lose." And right after the race—inwhich Royal Orbit lost by four and a half lengths to Black Hills—he added,still cheerfully (he would, in fact, have sounded irritatingly cheerful tohorseplayers who had made Royal Orbit an odds-on favorite): "Sure, he mayhave hung a bit in the stretch, but I'm perfectly satisfied. This is a bigrugged colt who doesn't like his races too far apart. Now that he's had thisrace over the Belmont track he'll be much better next week. Wait andsee."
Sword Dancer'svictory in the Metropolitan, in which he carried one pound over scale weightand still decisively trounced 10 older horses by reeling off the mile in 1:351/5, was probably as fine a performance as has been seen on any track thisyear. Having beaten Royal Orbit in the Derby and then lost to him in thePreakness, Sword Dancer's brilliant comeback in the Metropolitan naturallystarted his young trainer, Elliott Burch, thinking out loud about their thirdimportant meeting. "True, Sword Dancer was really rated for the first timein the Metropolitan," he noted, "and actually he's very easy to rate.But remember that the start of a race often dictates the ultimate tactics. Inthe Metropolitan, Sword Dancer didn't break particularly fast, and because ofit Shoemaker had a perfect opportunity to do a job of rating him. In theBelmont, however, the early pace is going to be the determining factor on howShoe positions this colt."
With weight beingthe equalizing factor in the Belmont (as it is in the Derby and Preakness),both Royal Orbit and Sword Dancer probably have slight advantages over BlackHills. Both of them are seasoned weight carriers by now, while Black Hills,even if he is reaching his top form, must pick up 13 pounds this week. It couldmake a lot of difference. Max Hirsch is by no means overly confident, but onecannot help recalling a striking similarity between the way he has broughtBlack Hills along and the way in which he managed another late-developing3-year-old in 1954. That one was named High Gun. After making six unprofitablestarts that spring, High Gun won the Peter Pan by three lengths, and a weeklater he won the Belmont. Before the season was over this game, brown son ofHeliopolis was the 3-year-old champion. Black Hills naturally has a long way togo if he is to duplicate High Gun's remarkable achievement, but at least he'sgot two remarkably experienced men in his corner: Max Hirsch himself and arider named Eddie Arcaro. "I wouldn't say we have another High Gunhere," says Hirsch, "but he could be a bit of a runner. And Saturdayhe'll have to be a hell of a runner to beat Sword Dancer. For either thehandicap bunch that Sword Dancer beat in the Metropolitan aren't worth much, orSword Dancer just has to be a whale of a horse. He's as good as I've seen allyear."
I am inclined togo along with Sword Dancer on the grounds that his defeat in the Preakness maybe blamed, partly at least, on his dislike of the Pimlico strip. Now he comesback fresher than ever for the big one and his Metropolitan showed he enjoysthe Belmont track. His owner, Mrs. Isabel Dodge Sloane, would of course love towin this one after running second in both the Derby and Preakness. "It's sonice," she said the other day, "to be told you may have the best horse.But one of the things that always makes the Belmont Stakes so tough to figureis that you never really know until Belmont Day whether your horse will go amile and a half. And we still don't know that for sure about Sword Dancer.Nobody does."
TRAINER MAX HIRSCH is hoping that he can duplicate High Gun's Belmont win.