It was nearly time for dinner last Saturday night at Belmont Park, and Risen Star, looking restless and ravenous, stood at the door of his stall waiting for room service to bring him his oats and sweet feed. Harold Joseph, his 34-year-old groom, knelt at the colt's front legs, pinning on the last of his protective bandages. Just three hours earlier this giant son of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat had crushed five other horses in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, winning by 14¾ lengths in the sensational time of 2:26[2/5]. What's more, he did it in the bold, swashbuckling style reminiscent of the old man himself when, 15 years ago. Secretariat won that Belmont by a record 31 lengths.
Joseph got to his feet and stepped back to admire his handiwork. "His daddy jumped out of him today!" said the groom. "He run the second fastest Belmont of all time. Second only to his daddy's 2:24 flat. Oooo! Man, I'm tellin' you! This colt told us all today: 'I'm the force to be reckoned with now. You've got to beat me.' "
Indeed, Risen Star is the best American 3-year-old to be seen at this time of year since Conquistador Cielo smashed the field in the 1982 Belmont Stakes. In Saturday's performance, Star, as his handlers like to call him, revealed himself not only as the top 3-year-old but also as one of the nation's most gifted racehorses of any age. They had not run even five eighths of a mile at Belmont when it became patently clear—in the easy, rolling drumbeat of his stride—that no other horse had the stuff to reckon with Risen Star over 12 furlongs.
In the end, Risen Star ran as he pleased and finished the race with a last, dramatic flourish, rushing home alone through a final quarter mile in a daunting 24[4/5] seconds, a fifth of a second faster than Secretariat's final Belmont split. The victory, coming three weeks after he had won the Preakness Stakes and five weeks after he had finished third in the Kentucky Derby, earned him a purse of $303,720 plus the $1 million bonus given to the horse with the best record in the Triple Crown races.
Star's ascendancy on Saturday was made more compelling by the uncertainty that had surrounded him in recent weeks. Before the Preakness, fearing the muddy track, trainer Louie Roussel considered scratching the colt until nearly post time. Before the Belmont, wary of the effects the race might have on a strained suspensory ligament in Risen Star's right front leg, which he had suffered two weeks before, Roussel was not entirely sure he would run him until less than two hours before post. Adding to the intrigue was a dizzying workout the day before the race, when Risen Star finished off a 1½-mile gallop by drilling three eighths of a mile in 33[3/5] seconds—the fastest last-minute zinger ever recorded for the Belmont.
"Too fast," Roussel complained that morning. "Way too fast. But I can't worry about it. It's over. I just hope it didn't take too much out of him for tomorrow."
Roussel insisted—contrary to some skeptics' belief that he was trying to disguise his true intentions—that the fast workout on Friday was an unfortunate accident, not a deliberate attempt to sharpen the colt's speed so that he might run with Winning Colors early. "I'm not going to get into a speed duel with her and set it up for somebody coming way off the pace. I can assure you that," Roussel said. Pointing to his forehead, he said, "I may have dumb written across here, but I don't have crazy."
Crazy like a fox, perhaps. Accident or not, the fiery blowout put a keen edge on the colt's speed and served notice that Risen Star could give fast and early chase to the filly. On Belmont day, as post time neared, Roussel washed the mud poultice from the colt's legs and pronounced him fit. Risen Star fairly bounced back to his stall. "He's like a high school boy on his first date," Roussel said. "Rarin' to go."
Winning Colors may have had one too many dates in the grueling Triple Crown season. Whereas she came to the saddling paddock at the Kentucky Derby on her toes, with her neck bowed, she appeared strangely docile in the Belmont paddock, as if the old fire were out. Nonetheless, the crowd of 56,558 sent her off at 2-1, the same as Risen Star and Brian's Time. And she looked the part at the start.
Jockey Gary Stevens let her roll out of the gate, but Eddie Delahoussaye sent Risen Star right after her into the first turn. Winning Colors pulled away around the turn, opening four lengths. But down the backstretch, looking at her from behind, Delahoussaye sensed that she was not right. "I could see she was struggling near the three-quarter pole," he said. "My horse was going so easy. I said, 'Well, let me go to her and see what happens.' "
He moved his hands. Risen Star picked up the beat and ranged up right next to the filly. "I moved up to her and she didn't do anything," Delahoussaye said. "I knew it was over."
So did Stevens. When Risen Star drew alongside, Stevens asked Winning Colors to run. "I let out a notch and there was nothing there," Stevens said. "Always before, a horse could run to her, but if you let out a notch, she'd pick it up and jerk their hearts out. I moved my hands three or four times on her and nothing happened." At that point, looking over and seeing that Delahoussaye's arms were full of horse, Stevens called to him, "You're the winner!"
Meanwhile, in front of a TV monitor near the winner's circle, Roussel and Jimmy Nichols, Star's exercise rider, were watching the race together, with Roussel imploring Delahoussaye to wait: "You've got plenty of time!" he yelled. "Too fast! Too fast!" But around the turn, with the filly cooked and the long shot Kingpost vainly giving chase, Roussel urged his rider to move. "Go with him!" Roussel said. "Open up. Turn him loose, Eddie!"
"He's got him," Nichols said. "Just hold him together." As the colt extended his lead in the stretch to 10 lengths, then 12, Roussel was shouting, "Turn him loose, Eddie! Turn him loose...don't even hit him with the whip...save him...ease him. What a racehorse!"
As Risen Star widened his margin to the wire, Nichols began the refrain that would be heard the rest of the evening: "Like his daddy...just like his daddy!" The colt drew off at will, while Winning Colors faded to last. Kingpost, a 17-1 shot, ran steadily to finish second, and Brian's Time came in third.
Now, suddenly but unmistakably, Roussel finds himself with a monster on his hands. Before he decides what to do next, he says he will give his Star some time off for the leg to fully heal, some time to rest. Not that he needed it Saturday night. Three hours after the race, the colt was eating his way through his webbing, howling and nickering for supper. When Joseph tried to carry the feed tub into his stall, Risen Star stopped the groom at the door and plunged his nose into the grain. Joseph stood at the door holding the tub, letting the horse enjoy his victory feast.
"You are the champeen!" the groom told him. "Your daddy jumped out of you today."
Joseph (above, left) was well aware that Star's winning time was second only to...
[See caption above.]
...Secretariat's runaway romp in the 1973 Belmont.