Belmont rubber match a rarity

The Belmont rubber match between Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners has a long history.

Updated: June 7, 2005, 6:44 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

June 12, 1875 was a day much like any other day on the New York racing circuit. A large crowd gathered to watch the ponies compete; a $2 win wager equaled approximately a day's wages for a local blacksmith; and Hank Goldberg's great-great grandfather was "alive" to six horses in the final race of the late pick four.

Most of that has been historically verified.

But what makes this date memorable was the field assembled for the ninth running of the Belmont Stakes. For the first time, the winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes squared off in the proverbial "rubber match" at the Belmont Stakes.

The stars of 1875 were the chestnut Derby champion Aristides, better known today as that statue in the paddock at Churchill Downs, and Tom Ochiltree, the Preakness champ who would be best known for an 1877 race that was considered so important Congress actually adjourned to see it.

Keep in mind, such showdowns between Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners at the Belmont Stakes continue to be rare. In fact, in the 131 years that all three events have been contested, this Saturday's Belmont match-up between Giacomo and Afleet Alex marks just the 21st time that the opening Triple Crown leg winners compete against each other in the Belmont.

Ironically, the first Triple Crown rubber match took only 25 days to materialize.

On May 17, 1875, inaugural Kentucky Derby winner Aristides was supposed to be a pace-setting rabbit for owner Price McGrath's more-fancied stablemate Chesapeake. But the chestnut colt made all the running and never looked back. The rest, as they say, is history.

Eleven days later in Baltimore, the Preakness was about to be contested for the third time in its infancy. Aristides didn't make the trip, but Tom Ochiltree rallied from seventh to take the $1,900 winner's share and earn his place in history.

Exactly two weeks later, the Belmont Stakes would be renewed for the ninth time at Jerome Park. The pomp and circumstance of the modern Triple Crown was non-existent, as was respect for the Derby and Preakness winners. In fact, 14 horses entered that 1875 Belmont (still the second-most in history) seeking the $4,450 first prize.

Price McGrath came to Belmont with guns loaded. Derby favorite Chesapeake would get another shot, joining Aristides in the starting gate against the Preakness winner Tom Ochiltree. And for insurance, McGrath also sent postward a less-heralded colt named Calvin.

And leave it to Calvin to spoil the darn thing.

Calvin defeated stablemate Aristides by two lengths, while Tom Ochiltree mustered only a seventh-place finish.

And you thought disappointing finishes in the Belmont Stakes only included names like Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Real Quiet and Silver Charm?

I'm pretty sure that also busted Pappy Goldberg's pick four.

But the Aristides-Tom Ochiltree Belmont Stakes gives us a starting point in history for evaluating a showdown like Giacomo vs. Afleet Alex or Point Given vs. Monarchos, the last said "rubber match" in 2001.

The Belmont "rubber match" has smiled brightly on the Preakness winner historically. Of the 20 past showdowns, nine have gone to the champ from Baltimore; five times the Derby winner has exacted revenge; and the likes of that darned Calvin have spoiled the party six times.

Here's a bullet-point look at the 20 all-time Belmont Stakes "rubber matches":

2001 - Preakness winner Point Given defeats Derby champ Monarchos, who finishes third.
1994 - Preakness winner Tabasco Cat defeats Derby champ Go For Gin, who finishes second.
1993 - Colonial Affair upsets Derby winner Sea Hero (seventh) and Preakness champ Prairie Bayou (did not finish).
1991 - Preakness winner Hansel defeats Derby champ Strike The Gold, who finishes second.
1988 - Preakness winner Risen Star defeats Derby champ Winning Colors, who finishes sixth.
1984 - Derby champ Swale defeats Preakness winner Gate Dancer, who finishes seventh.
1982 Conquistador Cielo upsets Derby champ Gato Del Sol (second) and Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler (ninth).
1980 - Temperence Hill upsets Derby champ Genuine Risk (second) and Preakness winner Codex (seventh).
1975 - Avatar upsets Derby champ Foolish Pleasure (second) and Preakness winner Master Derby (third).
1974 - Preakness winner Little Current defeats Derby champ Cannonade, who finishes third.
1967 - Preakness winner Damascus defeats Derby champ Proud Clarion, who finishes fourth.
1963 - Derby champ Chateaugay defeats Preakness winner Candy Spots, who finishes second.
1956 - Derby champ Needles defeats Preakness winner Fabius, who finishes third.
1949 - Preakness winner Capot defeats Derby champ Ponder, who finishes second.
1942 - Derby champ Shut out defeats Preakness winner Alsab, who finishes second.
1940 - Preakness winner Bimelech defeats Derby champ Gallahadion, who finishes fifth.
1877 - Preakness winner Cloverbrook defeats Derby champ Baden Baden, who finishes third.
1875 - Calvin upsets Derby champ Aristides (second) and Preakness winner Tom Ochiltree (seventh).

Supporters of Afleet Alex have plenty to look forward to in this year's "rubber match" at Belmont. His Preakness obstacle course was one for the ages and no doubt will be a deserving and difficult-to-defeat favorite.

Giacomo's running style from the spring may be his best asset in the mile-and-one-half Belmont. He's a rock-steady, one-geared sort that always run his race. Some days it's good enough; others it falls just short.

And who could be this year's Calvin?

Andromeda's Hero, an impeccably bred colt who has been training five weeks for this since a respectable Derby performance, could merit the biggest upset chance to the top two. Chekhov and Reverberate have Belmont Stakes-winning genes and have run well over the track. If there's a Calvin out there, perhaps he's among this trio.

But history says this "rubber match" belongs to Afleet Alex, and his past performances aren't too shabby either.

Watch the Belmont on NBC this Saturday at 5 p.m. ET

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.