Commentary

Backing the Belmont

Updated: June 10, 2011, 1:06 PM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

Going into Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the focus is rightly on Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Preakness Stakes winner Shackleford.

Although no Triple Crown is on the line, it is good for the sport that these two horses are competing against each other again and that they are both completing the entire race series.

The most common question I have heard this week besides "Who do you think will win?" is "Are you going to be there?" The answer to the first is Animal Kingdom, and the answer to the second is no.

Part of me wondered if it is hypocritical to skip the Belmont since I know I would be there if Animal Kingdom had managed to catch Shackleford at the wire three weeks ago.

Without a Triple Crown as a possibility, I opted instead to head home to Memphis. In one weekend, my family and I are going to cram in a post-birthday celebration for me, a Belmont celebration for the sport, and a pre-Father's Day celebration for my dad.

Part of me wondered if it is hypocritical to skip the Belmont since I know I would be there if Animal Kingdom had managed to catch Shackleford at the wire three weeks ago.

But the truth of the matter is that some of my favorite race memories involve sitting on the floor in front of our family's TV as we all cheered home our respective runners. The morning of a big race, my dad and I would drive to Southland Greyhound Park in Arkansas so we could bet.

Both of these things will take place this weekend, and come Saturday afternoon, there are few I would trade places with.

Plus, I still very much care who wins the race even though there is no hope of a Triple Crown. In fact, some of my favorite Belmont memories stem from non-Triple Crown years.

I think this is because I remember details that extend beyond just the winners and the losers. Triple Crown years are so focused on one singular horse that the rest gets a bit muddled in my memory.

In 2000, I was overseas when the Belmont took place. Although it was only 11 years ago, that meant I had no cellphone, and hotels didn't helpfully provide "business centers" for a quick check of online news.

Watching the race live was also not a possibility, so the next morning I found a phone booth and called home with an international calling card to ask who won.

Commendable is perhaps one of the least-remembered Belmont winners, but I can't forget that moment. In what was probably the last time I would stand in a phone booth, I found out that Bob and Beverly Lewis finally won the third leg of the Triple Crown, just a year or three too late.

One year later, my family and I watched from home as Point Given put on a clinic in the Belmont. A decade later, that race still gives me goosebumps and leaves me wondering "What if?" For those who have never seen it, I would recommend pulling up the video. It really is something to see.

To this day, I remain grateful that none of the neighbors called the cops that afternoon.

In 2007, I was not assigned to cover the Belmont for the company I worked for, so I went to a friend's house to watch the race. Everyone at that party happened to be female, so when Rags to Riches went eyeball-to-eyeball with Curlin and prevailed, you can imagine the pandemonium that broke out.

To this day, I remain grateful that none of the neighbors called the cops that afternoon. To say there was some shouting during the stretch run of that race would be an understatement of titanic proportions.

For all my more lighthearted memories, obviously I know that having a horse go for the Triple Crown is the ideal situation for the sport. The Belmont gets more coverage, more people attend, more money is bet and hope springs eternal.

Simply put, it is more exciting.

That said, it bothers me when people believe the race is pointless without the lure of the crown. In the past decade alone, horses like Preakness winners Point Given and Afleet Alex used it as continued redemption after subpar races in the Derby, while Rags to Riches made history with her victory.

To say the race is meaningless before it is run is a fallacy. Are there years when the Belmont winner turns out to be relatively unimportant? Of course. (Sorry, Commendable.) However, that is a possibility for any race in any given year.

Maybe Animal Kingdom and Shackleford are well on their way to a memorable rivalry. Maybe not. But the only way to begin to know is to tune in Saturday.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com