First Roses, Then Carnations: Derby Winners Who Went Straight to the Belmont

First Roses, Then Carnations: Derby Winners Who Went Straight to the Belmont

The news that upset Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Rich Strike would skip the Preakness Stakes and wait for the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on June 11 came as a surprise to many a racing fan accustomed to the notion that the Derby winner would move on to Baltimore. It has been 40 years since a Derby victory has passed up the Preakness to rest before the 1½-mile Belmont. Since 1919, when Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown, only two horses have sidestepped the middle jewel.

Though other Derby winners have missed the Preakness and then the Belmont because of injury or the rigors of the Triple Crown schedule — the connections of Spend a Buck in 1985 famously chased and won a $2 million bonus by skipping the Preakness in favor of the Jersey Derby — both Count Turf and Gato Del Sol opted to skip Baltimore for New York, their names standing out among a century of classic winners.

Count Turf (1951)

With a Triple Crown winner as his sire and a Kentucky Derby winner as his grandsire, one might assume that Count Turf would have been a sure bet in the 1951 Triple Crown classics. Yet this son of Count Fleet was on no one’s radar when he arrived in Louisville.

Bred by California physician Frank Porter Miller, this plain bay colt was out of the mare Delmarie, a daughter of leading sire Pompey. As a yearling, he sold for $3,700 at the 1949 Saratoga yearling sales to Jack Amiel, whose small stable was based in New York. Amiel named the colt for both his Turf Restaurant and for his sire, Count Fleet, and then sent him to trainer Sol Rutchick.

At two, Count Turf started 10 times, but won only once, taking the Dover Stakes at Delaware Park. His 3-year-old season started out as much of the same: he won once, but was training well as the first Saturday in May approached. Despite an out-of-the-money finish in the Wood Memorial, Amiel was impressed by the colt’s tenacity and decided to send him to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

A family illness kept Rutchick in New York, so the trainer sent his assistant trainer in his stead. A longtime horseman himself, Amiel along with Rutchick’s assistant George Sulley prepared the colt for the Derby. The colt’s owner was so confident that he told famed jockey Eddie Arcaro that they were going to win. Arcaro, who was riding the favorite Battle Morn, scoffed. Even Amiel’s choice of jockey, Conn McCreary, did not inspire confidence. McCreary had won the Derby once before, taking the race on Pensive in 1944, but he had fallen on hard times and was struggling to find mounts. Nevertheless, the jockey knew he was on a good colt, even if the oddsmakers did not agree.

In a 20-horse field, Count Turf had been lumped in with the mutuel field, going off at 14.60-1 odds. He raced in mid-pack at the half-mile mark and then steadily wove through the string of horses, McCreary sending him to the lead as they entered the stretch. Under McCreary’s urging, Count Turf extended his advantage to four lengths, taking the Kentucky Derby with ease. Like his sire and grandsire, Amiel’s colt found Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May much to his liking.

Despite Amiel’s confidence in his colt, he had decided not to enter Count Turf in the Preakness Stakes, passing up Maryland’s historic race for a try at the Belmont Stakes, which was closer to the colt’s homebase at Jamaica Race Track in New York. The Preakness was absent the top four finishers from the Derby, leaving the race wide open for Brookemeade’s Bold with Eddie Arcaro. Injury prevented Bold from trying the Belmont, but Count Turf faced a field of nine others, including Counterpoint, who had finished second in the Preakness.

Count Turf finished seventh behind a victorious Counterpoint, coming out of the race with an injury that kept him off the racetrack for the rest of the year. He raced for two more seasons and then retired to stud in Kentucky, standing first at Almahurst Farm, then Elmhurst, and then spending his final years at Windy Hills Farm in Maryland.  

Gato Del Sol (1982)

The story of Arthur Hancock III and Stone Farm is a familiar one to fans of Sunday Silence, the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner who helped Hancock overcome the financial difficulties of the late 1980s. Earlier that decade, though, Hancock had another Kentucky Derby winner, a gray colt named Gato Del Sol.

When he came to Churchill Downs for the 1982 edition, this son of Cougar II had not won a race in eight months, going winless in his seven starts since his Del Mar Futurity victory in late September 1981. However, Gato Del Sol had been second in the San Felipe Handicap and then in the Blue Grass Stakes, his last Derby prep race. With that inconsistent record, the gray colt went into the gate for the Derby with odds of 21.20-1.

Last of 19 horses early, Gato Del Sol made up ground on the far turn, sitting fifth at the one-mile mark in the 1¼-mile race. With a furlong to go, jockey Eddie Delahoussaye moved his colt to the lead as the front-running filly Cupecoy’s Joy faded. At the finish line, he was 2½ lengths ahead of Laser Light, winning the Derby in 2:02 2/5, the same time as Spectacular Bid in 1979. Hancock was thrilled with his first classic winner, beating his brother Seth and Claiborne Farm to the winner’s circle, though they would get one of their own two years later with Swale.

By 1982, the list of Triple Crown winners had 11 names on it and the last horse to win the Derby and the skip the Preakness was three decades earlier. Since Count Turf, no other Derby winner had bypassed the Preakness to wait for the Belmont Stakes. Before Derby day in 1982 had even ended, trainer Eddie Gregson had ruled Gato Del Sol out of the Preakness.

“The race and the course are not conducive to this colt’s running style,” Gregson told sportswriter Jack Murray, “and the Belmont Stakes has been a red-letter day on our calendar early on.”

Gato Del Sol benefitted from a fast pace up front for his preference to bid for the lead late. That was his biggest hiccup in the 1⅛-mile Santa Anita Derby: last with a quarter of a mile to go, Gato Del Sol had been made up enough ground to finish fourth. The longer Kentucky Derby suited that style as would the Belmont Stakes, but the Preakness, a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby, tended to favor front-runners more than closers so his team made the choice. It was a not a popular one.

At Pimlico, Stall 40, the traditional home of the Kentucky Derby winner while they prepared for the Preakness, stood empty. Chick Lang, the track’s general manager and the Preakness Stakes’ greatest promoter, was incensed by the Gato Del Sol team’s decision to skip the middle jewel and threatened to put a mule or a goat in the stall instead. Rather than find an unsuitable replacement for the gray colt, Lang just locked the stall’s door and the show went on without the Derby winner.

Aloma’s Ruler took the Preakness Stakes with ease and then journeyed to New York to face Gato Del Sol in the Belmont. The Derby winner was fresh after his five-week layoff, but neither he nor the Preakness winner had enough to hold off Conquistador Cielo in the Belmont. Five days after a record turn in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap, Conquistador Cielo won the 1½-mile Belmont on a muddy track, with Gato Del Sol 14 lengths back in second and Aloma’s Ruler ninth.

Gato Del Sol would go on to race for three more seasons, with wins in the Caballero and Cabrilllo Handicaps at Del Mar the most notable of his wins after his Derby victory. He then stood stud at Hancock’s Stone Farm for a time before being sold to a German breeder in 1992. Gato Del Sol returned to the United States in 1999 and lived out his life at Stone Farm, where was buried after his death in 2007.

Rich Strike (2022)

After drawing in the 20-horse field for the 2022 Kentucky Derby off the also-eligible list, Rich Strike surprised everyone with his late bid for the lead, riding the rail to pass Epicenter and Zandon in the race’s final strides.

Owner Rick Dawson bucked expectations with his May 12 announcement that they would bypass the Preakness in favor of the Belmont Stakes, giving the colt a five-week break. Because his colt’s best performances came after such layoffs, Dawson and trainer Eric Reed made the rare choice to pass up a try at the Triple Crown, the first since 1982.

With just over three weeks to go before the Belmont Stakes, Rich Strike’s story is just beginning. His unexpected victory at Churchill Downs is the first act in a play that no one quite knows the ending to – yet.