You're not going to believe this but for the 108th time in its 119 years of running, the Belmont produced no Triple Crown of racing winner Saturday. And a pie is round and apples are red and bears hunt in the woods. And the Pope is Polish.
The race was won, as it usually is in New York, by a local wise guy who left the rubes holding the bag--or the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge.
When you come to New York, it's a good idea to shower with your wallet in your hand. Never buy a vegetable peeler on a street corner. Figure the watch you get to turn green before you get it back home to show it off.
It's not a good idea to buy into a neighborhood crap game here or pick up hitchhikers. Stay out of Central Park after dark.
And don't put your horse in the Belmont. It's betting into a pat hand. It's Heartbreak Hotel, a mile and a half of broken dreams.
Lots of guys leave their watches and rings and travelers' checks to the wise guys of Manhattan. Some leave their life savings.
But nobody got mugged more convincingly than a hick from the West Coast named Alysheba did at the Belmont Saturday. They took him for a million dollars. Match that around New York. For him, every horse in the race should have been named "Slick."
The slicker who sent the rubes home in a barrel this time was a smoothie named Bet Twice. If he was human, he'd be wearing a pinch-back suit and a $20 gold piece on his vest and be carrying his own deck.
It wasn't much of a race. The sucker didn't put up much of a fight.
Claimers could have kept up with the pace. On a fast track, the best 3-year-olds in the country could only negotiate a mile in 1:38 and 2/5 and the three-quarters in 1:13 and 4/5. Man o' War could do that backing up.
It's what they do in New York. Let you win a couple of hands. Appear to put money in a bag and ask you to match it. When you open the bag, it's all gone.
Alysheba bought the grift. He thought he had all the time in the world. And then Bet Twice began to pull the aces out of his sleeve.
You have to understand Alysheba really left five million dollars lying around. He scattered more money, faster than a whaler on shore leave.
The circumstances are the least bit peculiar but you have to understand that the sport of horse racing is concerned with preserving the integrity of the Triple Crown--the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. So, they made it worth $5 million to you if you can win all three. That's what Alysheba would have gotten had he won the Belmont Saturday.
But to keep up the interest in the series even in the absence of a Triple Crown possibility, they posted $1 million to any horse who won on a point system for the three big races--5 for first, 3 for second and 1 for third.
That's a pretty enticing wheel--and all Alysheba had to do to get this pot would have been to finish in the money. To finish second would have given him 13 points--5 for each victory in the Derby and Preakness and 3 for a second in the Belmont.
If he had finished even third, he would have split the million with Bet Twice--who got 6 points for his place finishes in the first two legs of the Triple Crown and 5 for the Belmont win.
Alysheba finished fourth. He finished up with the proverbial earful of cider. He left New York, so to speak, with his thumb up and his head aching.
How they did it to him is as old as race tracking. They ran the race in slow freight time. His chauffeur, Chris McCarron, realized too late, that the con game was on. That's what this town does to you. Listen to the owner of Bet Twice, Bob Levy, who not only owns a horse, he owns a race track (Atlantic City) in this part of the country.
"The idea was to get 5 or 6 lengths in the lead turning for home. We figured if that other horse (Alysheba) could come catch us after going a mile-and-a-quarter carrying 126 pounds, God bless him. Taking a horse after that kind of racing and asking him to go catch a horse 5 or 6 lengths in front is like shooting for the moon."
They send cars after moon-shooters in New York.
The good news is, the winner escaped that most melancholy role in racing--or life--the perennial bridesmaid. Bet Twice finally got to give up chasing Alysheba to the wire.
Some great horses have not been so lucky. Sham, for instance. Sham kept running right on the heels of Secretariat, breaking track records himself in the process--till he finally broke his heart in the Belmont. Alydar could never catch Affirmed, although never more than a head bob away.
But Arts and Letters did catch Majestic Prince. It's altogether fitting a horse who has paid his dues should waylay his tormentor. A more usual, and galling, procedure is for a fresh horse to wait in the alley in New York for a tired bunch to come to him (6 of the last 8 Belmonts have been won by a horse who laid in the weeds and rested for the unwary field to come to his turf).
The moral is, if you come to New York, keep your hand on your money clip, your hotel door locked and your eye on everybody.
Alysheba just came up 5 million short, is all. He came within a nose and a neck of a million. By the time he wised up, Bet Twice was crossing the finish line 14 lengths in front of everybody.
It happens in New York. The Belmont, like the sidewalk guy who gives you a flash of a lining full of "gold" watches or the dealer who gives you a flash of the face cards, lies in wait for you. As Trainer Woody Stephens warned, "When you cross the Hudson, the buildings get taller and the stakes higher.
Alysheba never had a chance. They had him marked the minute he came through the Holland Tunnel. You don't take $5 million out of this town--unless you get elected to office. It's a cinch you're not going to do it on a race track around here. Not from anybody who can count. And they do that here better than any place on earth.